IN 1992 JUDY AND I VISITED FLORENCE, ITALY. In the central square, unchanged for centuries, we found a small brass plaque embedded in the pavement. It was dedicated to Girolamo Savonarola, one of the cities past heroes. Knowing quite a bit about this man, I was deeply moved.
GIROLAMO SAVONAROLA was born in 1452 and died in 1498. He was to the Reformation what John the Baptist was to Jesus. When he died, Martin Luther was fifteen years old. Nineteen years after Savonarola’s death Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the Wittenberg church door. Savonarola’s ministry preceded Luther. It was a clarion call to repentance, preparing the church for the great doctrinal reformation to come.
Tragically, neither Catholic nor Protestant claims this man. Because he fearlessly and vigorously rebuked the Pope, calling for moral reform at its highest levels, the Roman Church disowns him. Like most Protestants, he loved and preached the Bible, but since he was pre-reformation, he did not clearly see justification by faith alone, so Protestant historians don’t know what to do with him either.
But, the important point is that God claimed him, and in the end, that is all that matters. He was a prophet. He was theologically orthodox. God anointed him with great spiritual power. He was one of History’s epochal spiritual leaders.
Although his name is not well known today, Savonarola was a household name in sixteenth-century Europe. His meditation on Psalm 51, written while being tortured at the end of his life, was a best-seller. It outsold Thomas a’ Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, which at that time was a best seller in Europe, and it was still in print as late as 1958. His writings influenced Martin Luther. He also affected many other great men. For example, Michelangelo, one of his admirers, could still hear the sound of Savonarola’s voice in his old age. It has been said that he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel from his recollections of the Friar’s sermons.
Who was this man and why is he important to us today?
Birth and Training
Savonarola was born in Ferrara Italy in 1452. His pious grandfather raised him in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. In a day when it was ignored and despised, he taught him to read and love the Bible. Ultimately, his passion for the scripture was to be the secret of his great spiritual power.
Girolamo longed to preach God’s Word. Because they were dedicated to preaching, he entered the Dominican order (O.P.). From 1475-82 the order placed him in Bologna. Then five years (1482-87) in Florence. During these years he preached much, but he was an oratorical failure. His teaching was so abysmal that, in the middle of his sermons, people would actually get up and walk out. When finished only a handful would be left.
To end the young man’s misery and embarrassment, his superiors transferred him back to Bologna from 1487-90. In Bologna, he did academic work. Eventually, the Dominicans transferred him back to the monastery of San Marco (Saint Marks) in Florence (1490). Here he would spend the remainder of his days.
The Renaissance was the great intellectual movement of the fifteenth century. It was a return to the original sources. Its slogan was “ad fontes,” which means to the sources (fountains). The Renaissance did much good. It produced Erasmus’ Greek New Testament which was instrumental in launching the Reformation.
In 1490 Florence was the cultural center of the Renaissance. The city was a source of great learning and art, but it was also a cesspool of sexual immorality, political corruption, and godlessness. The wealth and power of the ruling Medici family attracted artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo DaVinci, and Botticelli. In this great city, they learned and practiced their crafts.
In 1490 Savonarola was 38 and on his second tour of Florence. Frustrated by his failure to succeed at preaching, Savonarola died to his preaching ambitions. His failures caused him to transfer all confidence from himself to God. It was a God-engineered emptying. Savonarola didn’t know it, but God was now ready to use him with power.
About this time, he began a series of lectures, in the monastery garden, on the book of Revelation. Neither he nor his superiors expected much. But, in God’s sovereign purpose, his time had come. A new Power attended his preaching. God was present in the preaching, and the effect was electric. Crowds began to flock to his lectures. Within a few weeks, there was no seating except on the garden walls. Such was the demand for his preaching that his superiors finally moved him to The Duomo, the huge cathedral, still standing in downtown Florence. Fifteenth-century churches did not have pews. People stood, and the Duomo was large enough to hold ten thousand people standing.
Soon the Duomo was full. So the authorities built scaffolding to accommodate the crowds. His message was not one to which men are naturally drawn. Like John the Baptist, (His favorite Bible hero) his message was about repentance and self-denial. The Bible was always his subject. He fearlessly proclaimed the need for contrition, warning men of God’s coming judgment. He urged the citizens of Florence to confirm their repentance with deeds consistent with repentance. Nothing but the presence of the Living God can explain the results. One biographer writes:
“The Cathedral could no longer take in the multitudes streaming in from far and near…Wooden galleries had to be erected inside the cathedral in the form of an amphitheater to accommodate the crowds. Even this enlargement proved insufficient…It was a bewildering sight to see that mass of people coming with jubilee and rejoicing to the sermon as to a wedding feast.”[i]
The experience of Bettucio was common. He was a profligate non-Christian. Friends drug him into the Cathedral against his will. Here is how an eyewitness described his encounter with Girolamo:
“As soon as Savonarola mounted the pulpit everything changed in Bettucio…He could not tear his eyes away from the preacher. His mind was captivated, his conscience was touched by the Friar’s words, and, he says: ‘At last I knew myself to be as one dead rather than living.’” [ii]
Bettucio surrendered his life to Christ and never looked back.
Sometimes, the people were so overwhelmed by the reality of their sins that Girolamo had to wait for their weeping to subside before he could continue. At least ten times the Monk responsible to transcribe Girolamo’s sermons was so overcome by God’s power and presence that he broke down in weeping and could not continue transcription.
Jacob Burckhardt, a nineteenth century historian, was the first person to coin the term “renaissance” to describe this movement. About Savonarola he writes,
“The instrument by which Savonarola transformed and ruled the city of Florence was his eloquence. Of this, the meager reports that are left to us, taken down on the spot, give us evidently a very imperfect notion. It was not that he possessed any striking outward advantages, for voice, accent, and rhetorical skill, constituted precisely his weakest side…The eloquence of Savonarola was that of a commanding personality…He himself held his own eloquence to be the result of Divine illumination.” [iii]
What was the effect of the monk’s preaching? The city was transformed. Florence was skeptical. Florence was licentious. Florence was proud. But it became a city of belief, a city of repentance, and a city of humility. They began to feed the poor. The populace returned to church attendance enthusiastically. They purged the government of corruption, and sang hymns in the streets. It is one of the remarkable events of church history.
Through the preaching of Savonarola God showed that the negative aspects of the Renaissance were impotent before the Holy Spirit’s power.
Alexander VI was pope. It was the low point of the papacy. Alexander was a member of the notorious Borgia family. Known for his immorality, Alexander had numerous mistresses and illegitimate children. He was opulent. He was sensual. He was greedy. He did not in any way represent Christ.
Savonarola was a prophet. In his teens, he foresaw that he would die a violent death in Christ’s service. As Savonarola’s moral and spiritual influence grew, not only in Florence, but throughout Italy and Europe, a confrontation with the Borgia papacy, and its corruption, became inevitable. With great courage, Savonarola publicly challenged Alexander to repent of his immorality. He even called him “the representative of Satan, rather than Christ.”
At last the little friar had gone too far. Alexander leveraged the immense power of the papacy, put the courageous monk through a mock trial, tortured him for 30 days, and hung him before a huge throng in the main square of Florence. Savonarola suffered all this with great courage and dignity. The religious establishment had successfully extinguished a “burning and shining light” in the heart of both Florence and Italy.
Lessons from Savonarola
In retrospect, why is Savonarola’s life important?
First, he was a “forerunner of the Reformation.” This expression usually brings to mind men like Peter Waldo, Wycliffe (1329-1484), and Hus (1373-1415). But like John the Baptist, Savonarola came in “the Spirit and power of Elijah” (Lu 1:17). His ministry called Europe to repentance. It prepared the church for the coming Reformation.
Second, what transpired in Florence was one of the first Revivals in modern history. For about five years the Holy Spirit deeply moved and transformed Florence, a corrupt, and sensual city. Since the book of Acts, it was one of the first recorded spiritual awakenings in European history. It was the first of many similar outpourings to follow in the post-Reformation world, especially the eighteenth century Great Awakening.
Third, God demonstrated His power through Savonarola. Florence was the center and capital of European moral corruption. Despite this, here is how one person, at the height of the little Friar’s ministry, described the transformation of the city:
“No blasphemies were heard in the smithies, the bakeries, and the warehouses. Sometimes the market place spontaneously turned into an open-air religious songfest. …The priests were kept so busy…that Savonarola…asked the faithful for a two weeks suspension from all these duties…the monks were physically exhausted.”[iv]
When you feel tempted by hopelessness remember: God is omnipotent. When God decides to pour out his Holy Spirit, no city or nation can resist. Let us continue to wait upon God in repentance and faith. Our situation is never hopeless. We serve a big God: He is omnipotent. What he did in fifteenth-century Florence He can do in New York City or Los Angeles today. Savonarola was a “jar of clay” indwelt by the Treasure of God’s power. He modeled both the “weakness and fear” so prominent in Paul’s ministry. He also modeled a “demonstration of the Spirit’s power” that Paul talked about (1Corinthians 2:1-5).
Fourth, to the chagrin of many art historians, his preaching deeply influenced men like Michelangelo and Botticelli. As we have seen, Michelangelo is reputed to have painted the scenes of judgment in the Sistine Chapel from his memory of the monk’s sermons. Even Savonarola’s enemies reluctantly confess his influence.
Botticelli was so deeply affected that he quit painting for several years. When he resumed, his paintings had a spiritual caste previously lacking.
“An important effect on the young artist’s (Michelangelo’s) mind must have been exerted by Savonarola, whose preaching influenced Botticelli so deeply. In his old age Michelangelo still read the works of the martyred preacher and still recalled the sound of his voice.”[v]
Fifth, Savonarola’s story reminds us to check our ideas of normalcy at the door. What is spiritual normalcy? Do we project our spiritual experience upon the Bible, reducing its pages to the level of our experience? Or, do we project the life and vitality of the Bible upon our experience recognizing and confessing our poverty? Those who take the first approach become complacent and proud. Those who take the second approach never quit praying and yearning for a greater outpouring of God’s power in the church.
Sixth, to the degree that we experience God’s power we will also experience resistance. Many of the men throughout history that experienced this kind of power paid for it with their lives. Others paid for it with great emotional and physical suffering. That was certainly the case for Savonarola.
Last, when God wants to change a city or nation he raises up a man not a program, an organization, or a committee. This has always been his method. That is why Jesus exhorted us: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Mt 9:37-38). Let us pray with diligence and, like Isaiah, wait upon God with earnest prayer.
“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you” (Is 64:1-3).
Find a good book on Savonarola. There are many in print. You won’t be disappointed. I recommend A Crown of Fire by Pierre Van Paassen.
History is “His Story!”
[i] A Crown Of Fire, Pierre Van Paassen, Scribner, 1960 pg 173, Italics mine.
[ii] Ibid, pg 185
[iii] The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Jacob Burckhardt, Vol II
[iv] Ibid, pg 191
[v] History of Italian Renaissance Art, By Frederick Hartt, Prentice Hall, pg 467