Savonarola: "Prophetic" Preacher and Moral Reformer
Savonarola’s Prophetic Preaching
Savonarola’s Moral Reforms
Savonarola Versus the Pope
Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) was an Italian
Dominican monk who brought moral reformation to Renaissance Florence at
the end of the fifteenth century. His powerful preaching and claims to
prophetic gifts brought him into conflict with Pope Alexander VI, which
ended in Savonarola’s execution as a schismatic and a heretic on 23 May,
1498. This paper shall examine Savonarola’s conflict with the pope and
the factors leading to his death, and investigate the claim that
Savonarola was a pre-Reformer; that is, someone who paved the way for
that great work of Christ, the sixteenth-century Reformation which began
just decades after Savonarola’s death.
Savonarola was a child of the late Middle Ages, when
the corruption of the Romish church, both morally and doctrinally, had
reached a very advanced stage. Christ’s beloved church desperately
needed to be delivered from the cesspool of iniquity and, more
importantly, the church urgently needed to recover the gospel of grace,
which had been obscured by the widespread semi-Pelagian heresy of works
righteousness and human merit. The church of the Middle Ages had
degenerated to such a level that true preaching was almost impossible to
find, the sacraments were horribly corrupted, and the only church
discipline that was practised was the cruelty of the Inquisition, as
those who rebuked the church for her errors in doctrine and life were
persecuted as heretics. Savonarola, as we shall see, differed from the
true pre-Reformers, Wycliffe (c. 1320-1384) and Hus (c. 1369-1415) who
had sought to bring doctrinal reform. Savonarola lived and died a Roman
Catholic monk; he did not criticize the doctrinal errors of the Romish
church. For this reason, the thesis of this paper is that Savonarola was
not a pre-Reformer.
It would be helpful to place Savonarola in historical
context. Jan Hus had been burned at the stake at the Council of
Constance in 1415, thirty-seven years before Savonarola’s birth. That
council (1414-1418) had ended the great papal schism which had torn
Western Christendom apart from 1378 to 1417. During that period there
were two popes, each elected by a different group of cardinals, each
claiming to be the true Vicar of Christ on earth, one seated in Rome and
the other in Avignon, France. Neither of the men would step down for the
sake of peace and unity. Both hurled anathemas at one another, while
various nations in Europe allied themselves with the pope of their
choice as political factors might dictate. At one point, after the
Council of Pisa (1409), there were three rival popes! The papal schism
shows the folly of Romish claims that there is an unbroken succession of
popes from Peter. The Romish church was still smarting from this when
Savonarola, as we shall see, threatened her peace. In 1460, seven years
after Savonarola’s birth, pope Pius II issued his bull, Execrabilis,
which forbade any Roman Catholic to appeal to a general council. Yet,
this is exactly what Savonarola would attempt to do in a desperate
attempt to bring moral reform to a degenerate ecclesiastical structure.
II. Savonarola’s Prophetic
Savonarola, thoroughly disgusted with the world,
became a monk in 1475 without even consulting his parents. Although he
had desired to "be employed in the humblest and most menial duties of
the brotherhood," he soon showed a "marked ability which led to his
appointment as instructor of the novices."1
Initially, his preaching was scorned as unsophisticated and lacking in
rhetoric. As he began to preach repentance and the mercy of God, and to
portray in vivid images the judgments of God that would fall upon the
impenitent, crowds flocked to hear him. By the time he was transferred
to Florence, his reputation preceded him. Eisenbichler estimates that in
Savonarola’s heyday he was preaching to congregations of about twenty
Savonarola’s preaching took on a different form when
he used his pulpit to utter prophecies. He predicted that God would send
a scourge upon His church to purify it: "The church will be reformed,
but Italy will first be scourged, and her chastisement is imminent."3
The friar’s predictions seemed to be nearing fulfilment when news came
to Florence in 1494 that the King of France, Charles VIII, had invaded
Italy. This occurred just as Savonarola was preaching from the text,
"Behold I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth" (Gen. 6:17). This
coincidence only enhanced his reputation.
Savonarola hailed Charles a "new Cyrus," who would be
God’s instrument to purge His people. "This was the scourge he had been
prophesying, the scourge which would come upon Italy and the church;
upon Italy to punish the princes and the people for their sins; upon the
church, to punish and regenerate."4
When the King arrived in Pisa, the Florentine authorities asked
Savonarola to meet him and negotiate peaceful terms for the city of
Florence. Savonarola addressed the King with these words, "At last you
have come, O King. You have come as God’s minister, the minister of His
justice. With joyful heart and cheerful countenance we welcome you."5
Charles was a very unlikely "scourge" and proved to be nothing of the
kind. Erlanger describes the king: "he could barely sign his name … a
slavering little monarch … dim-witted and misshapen little prince."6
Daniel-Rops agrees: "By a remarkable aberration of his prophetic
foresight, Savonarola recognized the puny Charles VIII as the
long-awaited messenger of God."7 Crawford describes Charles
this way: "He had almost no education – hardly knew the alphabet, was
physically deformed, and seems to have been almost utterly devoid of
judgment. But he was eager to rule and ambitious to immortalize his
name."8 De la Bedoyere adds, "The King of France re-entered
his country less than a year after his useless invasion had begun. As
the scourge of God and the renewer of His church, prophesied by
Savonarola, Charles VIII could hardly have failed more abjectly."9
Charles did nothing to reform the church despite repeated attempts,
including warnings of divine judgment, from Savonarola to encourage him
in his duty. Ironically, Charles died on a dung heap the same day that
Savonarola’s credibility was forever ruined in the "Ordeal of Fire."10
III. Savonarola’s Moral
The moral corruption in Renaissance Italy was the
reason Savonarola cited for the coming judgment of God. The only
solution was a radical break with sin. There is no doubt that
Savonarola’s preaching had a profound effect on the outward morals of
the city. For a while, when the friar’s influence was at its height, he
succeeded in forming a theocracy where Jesus was declared King. Strict
laws were introduced which forbade gross vices such as sodomy (a sin
practiced widely in Florence), and made gambling, dancing and all forms
of indecent behaviour virtually disappear from the city, at least in
public. Daniel-Rops describes Savonarola’s Florence as a "dictatorship"
For years he succeeded in instilling such terror
of divine wrath into the entire city that its easy-going
inhabitants, so accustomed to worldly pleasure, adopted the way of
renunciation with panic-stricken fervour … theocracy never put
forward such claims elsewhere, save in Calvin’s Geneva during the
Crawford describes the scene,
Finery and jewellery were cast aside; women
dressed plainly on the streets; money which had been spent for
ornament and display was now given to the poor; theatres and taverns
were empty; cards and dice disappeared; the churches were crowded;
alms-boxes were well filled; tradesmen and bankers restored their
ill-gotten gains; purity, sobriety and justice prevailed in the
city, and the Prior of San Marco was everywhere hailed as the
greatest public benefactor.12
Savonarola succeeded in recruiting the youth in his
reform movement. He was able to transform the traditional carnival by
"Christianizing its semi-paganism." "Let there be jollifications, but so
purposefully organised that the happy people would sing and dance the
praises of God and be a judgment on the sin provoked by the immodesties
of a pagan tradition."13 In this new religious festival, the
young people played a leading role. In 1497, at carnival time,
Savonarola had the boys go around the city and ask for "vanities"
(anything considered to be indecent, whether pictures, books, or
clothing) which they gathered in the city square to be burned. Under the
friar’s supervision, the children became a kind of moral police.
The children had received such encouragement from
Fra Girolamo to reprove unbecoming modes of dress and the vice of
gambling, that when the people said, ‘Here come the prior’s
children,’ every gambler, however bold he might be, would take
himself off, and women attired themselves with all modesty. The
children were held in such reverence that everyone abstained from
The moral reforms were short-lived. Because there was
not true regeneration, moral living could not last. It was obvious that
Savonarola himself was a restraint on the public immorality. Once he was
silenced the people went back to their old ways. Van Paassen writes,
"the tide of … public immorality rose higher with every passing month
that Savonarola’s voice was hushed" and "the restraining hand of
Savonarola having been removed, the moral condition of Florence sank."15
The novelty of the friar soon wore off.
The Florentines revelled in the Friar’s
prophetical claims, in the colourful oratory which flattered and
lashed them … but we must also suppose that many gradually grew sick
of the cult of virtuous living, of the prohibition of easy ways, of
the forbidding of gambling and drinking, of the snooping of
Savonarola had just breathed his last when it is
reported that one shouted from the crowd of spectators, "Praise be to
God, now we can practice sodomy!"17 Van Paassen adds that the
day following the friar’s death "the populace indulged in orgies lewd
IV. Savonarola Versus the
Savonarola did not simply direct his denunciations at
the people of Florence. He attacked the corruption in the church at its
head, the clergy, the hierarchy and the pope himself. Rodrigo Borgia,
whose papal name was Alexander VI, became pope in 1492. It was widely
believed that he influenced the election in his favour by simony,
although one author doubts this claim.19 Protestant and Roman
Catholic historians both agree that Alexander VI was a less than saintly
pope. "His eleven-year pontificate was to be the most deplorable in the
whole history of Christianity: with Alexander VI, Borgia, the
Church sank to her lowest depths of degradation," writes Daniel-Rops.20
The French Roman Catholic historian adds that Alexander was "most
culpable in the field of morals … [he had] love affairs with several …
women … the presence of [his] large family, all the offspring of illicit
passion, around St. Peter’s successor gave rise to considerable
scandal."21 De la Bedoyere writes of the pope, "he was not,
we believe, a monster nor a man of unbridled licentiousness."22
Daniel-Rops disagrees, writing that the pope had "a hedonistic
temperament which was incapable of resisting temptation of any kind."23
However one wants to play down or accentuate the pope’s moral foibles,
he certainly cannot be considered to have displayed the "blamelessness"
required of an office-bearer (I Tim. 3:10; Titus 1:7) and it is
therefore not surprising that Alexander attracted sharp criticism from
the pulpit of Florence.
When news of a strange prophetic preacher stirring up
Florence reached Alexander, he was initially intrigued and desired to
hear the friar for himself. Savonarola excused himself from appearing in
Rome on the grounds of ill health. "There is not," writes Van Paassen,
"the slightest indication of ill will or suspicion on the part of
Alexander towards Savonarola in the first years of the new pontificate."24
The pope really did not mind the friar’s diatribe against immorality,
"so long as Savonarola thundered against luxury and immorality Alexander
deemed him harmless."25
There were many moral preachers throughout Christendom fulminating
against clerical abuses, and the pope knew the rumours with which his
moral lifestyle was associated. What made Savonarola different was his
claim to prophetic insights. More alarming to the pope was Savonarola’s
connecting the coming scourge with the King of France. Alexander, like
many of the medieval popes, feared any threat to his power. Moral
corruption, even doctrinal aberration, did not concern him so much, as
long as the authority of the church, his own authority, was not
questioned. The real issue for Alexander was political. Savonarola’s
stirring up the Florentines to believe that the French were their allies
prevented Florence joining the "Holy League." This alliance, consisting
of the pope, the emperor, the King of Spain, the Republic of Venice and
the Duke of Milan, was organized to defend Italy against the Turks and
protect the rights of the pope. Its immediate purpose was to drive the
French out of Italy.26 Florence refused to join the League
because they needed the help of a foreign power, France to prevent the
return of the Medici, who had been despots in the city for many
generations. Having established a republic owing largely to Savonarola’s
influence, they intended to maintain it, even if this meant opposing the
political ambitions of the pope. "[Alexander] continued to find the city
intractable owing, as he believed, to the ascendancy of Savonarola in
In July 1495 Alexander wrote to the friar summoning
him to appear in Rome to give an account of his prophecies. The papal
brief was cordial, "to our well-beloved son, greeting and the apostolic
benediction …"28 Whether Savonarola declined the invitation
because he suspected that the pope wanted to cast doubt upon his
prophecies,29 or because he guessed that such an invitation
would result in his imprisonment or death in Rome,30
or for some other reason, he declined to go, excusing himself on the
grounds of ill-health and explaining to the pope that his presence was
necessary in Florence to oversee the moral reforms which God had granted
in the city.
Alexander’s next brief (September, 1495) was less
cordial. It was addressed to the neighbouring monastery of a rival
order, the Franciscans, and it referred to "a certain Fra Hieronymo of
Ferrara [who] … has been led by the disturbed condition of affairs in
Italy to such a pitch of folly as to declare that he has been sent by
God and that he holds converse with him."31 The pope
commanded the reunification of Savonarola’s San Marco monastery with the
congregation of Lombard. In this way Savonarola would "no longer be a
provincial but simply one prior among sixteen, subject to the close
supervision of a vicar general, who could transfer him to another
convent at any time."32 Savonarola knew that his reforms
would be endangered if he no longer had control over the monastery in
Florence. Therefore he appealed directly to the pope, lamenting that
Alexander had been induced to believe his opponents who were trying to
undo the Lord’s work. The pope ignored Savonarola’s appeals and
Savonarola, on his part, disregarded the pope’s demands that he not
preach. The pope could not longer tolerate such defiance of his
authority and on 13 May, 1497, he issued the edict of excommunication.
The reasons for his excommunication were given:
He has disseminated pernicious doctrines to the
scandal and great grief of simple souls. We had already commanded
him, by virtue of his vows of holy obedience, to suspend his
sermons; but he refused to obey, and alleged various excuses which
we too graciously accepted, hoping to convert him by our clemency …
he has persisted in his stubbornness and thus, ipso facto,
incurs our censure … he is an excommunicated person and suspected of
Just as the edict was reaching Florence, disaster
struck Alexander’s family which many of Savonarola’s supporters viewed
as a judgment of God upon the wicked pontiff. In June, 1497, Alexander’s
favourite son, Juan, the Duke of Gandia was murdered and his body
recovered from the River Tiber. Savonarola, moved by pity, wrote to the
pope to comfort him. De la Bedoyere describes the scene,
The severe, ascetic Prophet of Florence, who,
overcoming his feelings for an unworthy Pontiff of the Church,
remembered the man, and wrote to him: ‘Faith, most holy Father, is
the one and true source of peace and consolation for the heart of
man. Let your Holiness respond to this call and you will see how
quickly sadness is turned into joy. All other consolation is trivial
and deceitful. Faith alone brings consolation from a far-off
country. Let your Holiness then forward the work of faith for which
I labour even unto bonds and do not give ear to the wicked. These
things I have written to you under the prompting of charity and in
all humility, desiring that your Holiness may find in God that true
comfort which does not deceive. May He console you in your
distress.’ Shaken by the murder of his son, Alexander was for a
moment able to rise to the Friar’s appeal. The sinner in his grief
and punishment raised his hands to touch, however fleetingly, the
robe of the saint.34
Alexander’s grief was so intense, that for a while he
considered reforming his ways and the ways of the church. But such
resolve was short lived. "Alexander," explains de la Bedoyere, "was
totally incapable of the resistance and perseverance necessary to carry
through the thoroughgoing reform of the church which in a moment of
spiritual anguish he could set in motion."35
In addition, a few hours after reading Savonarola’s sympathies the
pope’s anger was rekindled. He spoke of the letter as
a piece of contemptible insolence. He had been
insulted, he averred, in his dignity as Vicar of Christ. The
particular sentence in the Friar’s missive which aroused his
resentment most was the reference to God’s willingness to ‘pass over
all our sins.’ The pope now saw in this sentence an allusion to his
own past misdeeds.36
Savonarola initially obeyed the order of
excommunication and desisted from preaching. Between May 1497 and
February 1498 he was silent. The longer he remained out of his pulpit
the worse the morals of the people became. Therefore Savonarola was
asked by the authorities to re-enter the pulpit to stem the tide of
wickedness that threatened the city once again. On 11 February 1498 he
challenged the validity of his own excommunication and attacked the
authority of the pope: one who issues commands against charity is not to
be obeyed; the pope in issuing the decree of excommunication is not
acting on Christ’s authority. "The pope, unless he be guided as an
instrument of a superior agent, ‘is no better than you are yourselves;’
he can exercise no power because he is moved by no guiding hand; he is
‘a broken tool.’"37 The excommunication "stands out in
contrast with the good life and therefore proceeds from the devil."38
It is this defiance of papal authority that occasions
the criticism of Roman Catholic authors. No matter how wicked Alexander
may have been, no matter how corrupt the church was in its clergy and
hierarchy, no man has the liberty to impugn the office of the papacy.
De la Bedoyere is particularly scandalized by the fact that Savonarola
bypassed the pope to await "the commands of One who was superior to the
pope and to all creatures."39 To "defy the visible church"
was "of all his actions the hardest to defend."40 "The Friar
was certainly entitled to point to the corruption of morals, even at the
papal court and in regard to the person of the Holy Father himself,
but not to deny his authority."41 Daniel-Rops agrees, "In
his repeated attacks upon Rome, the Dominican was distinguishing less
and less between Alexander the man and Alexander the pope, and his
assault on the Borgia was thus becoming an assault on the Vicar of
Christ Himself."42 Parker writes,
In the straightforward clash between the two men,
it can with fairness be claimed that Savonarola provoked the pope
beyond reasonable limits … Savonarola stepped beyond orthodox
bounds, and dangerously so, in defining obedience and the place of
individual judgment to show whether or not any authority in the
Church should be accepted … Every individual has the right to resist
a corrupt order, to appeal in the last resort to Christ Himself, and
in claiming this, Savonarola was no less radical than Wycliffe or
Hus before him, or Luther afterward.43
Savonarola had one more card to play. Charles VIII
had failed to bring the required reform and as long as that corrupt pope
sat on St. Peter’s chair there could be no improvement in the morals of
the church. In February, 1498, the excommunicated friar addressed
personal letters to the sovereigns of Spain, England, Hungary, Germany
and France, urging them to call a general council to depose the pope who
had shown himself an unworthy leader of Christendom.
The Church is teeming with abominations from the
crown of her head to the soles of her feet. Yet, not only do you
apply no remedy, but you do homage to the cause of the woes by which
she is defiled … Now I testify, God being my witness, that this
Alexander is no pope, nor can he be held as one. Leaving aside the
mortal sin of simony by which he obtained the papal chair and daily
sells the benefices of the Church to the highest bidder, and also
leaving aside his other evident vices, I declare solemnly that he is
no Christian and believes in no God. Infidelity can go no further.44
This was an act of desperation and extremely
dangerous, yet Savonarola acted out of love for the church. Remember the
bull Execrabilis of 1460, almost forty years before this when
Pope Pius II had forbidden all such appeals to councils. Here are some
of the words from that papal bull:
… an execrable and in former ages unheard-of
abuse has sprung up in our time, namely that some people, imbued
with the spirit of rebellion, presume to appeal to a future Council
from the Roman Pontiff … we enjoin that nobody dares under whatever
pretext to make an appeal from any of our ordinances, sentences or
commands and from those of our successors … if any one, of whatever
status, rank, order or condition … shall contravene this … he shall
ipso facto incur sentence of anathema, from which he cannot be
absolved except by the Roman Pontiff and at the point of death …
Therefore, it is not allowed to any man to infringe or to oppose by
audacious perversion this charter of our will, by which we have
condemned, reproved, quashed, annulled, decreed, declared and
ordered the aforesaid. If any one, however, shall so attempt, let
him know that he shall incur the indignation of Almighty God and of
Saint Peter and Paul, His Apostles.45
De la Bedoyere calls Savonarola’s actions
"hysterical."46 Certainly, they were dangerous. Unfortunately
for Savonarola, none of his letters reached their destination and
several were sent to the pope himself! Now the pope had proof of the
friar’s treason. The rift between Alexander and Savonarola was
V. Savonarola’s Demise
The excommunication from the pope was not the cause
of Savonarola’s downfall. Nor was his open act of treason against St.
Peter’s unworthy successor. As long as he enjoyed the support of the
populace and the protection of the Florentine authorities, who valued
him as an influence for good in the city, the friar was relatively safe.
The Florentines did, however, begin to waver when threatened by a papal
interdict that would have brought ruin to the city. They therefore sent
ambassadors to Rome to try to appease the pope and convince him of the
friar’s virtues. Savonarola suddenly fell from grace in the fiasco known
as "the ordeal of fire."
Savonarola’s enemies needed some way to discredit him
in the eyes of the people who considered him a prophet of God. The
opportunity came when the rival Franciscans, jealous of Savonarola’s
popularity, challenged the Dominicans to prove the authenticity of
Savonarola’s message by an "ordeal of fire." Such ordeals were part of
the popular superstition of the period. It was believed that God would
authenticate a man’s message by supernatural means. Opponents in a
dispute would perform a dangerous feat and God was expected to protect
the man He favoured. In this case, if God was behind Savonarola’s
message, Savonarola ought to be able to walk through fire without being
burned. To Savonarola’s dismay and the Franciscans’ surprise, Fra
Domenico, probably his most enthusiastic supporter, accepted the
challenge. The arrangements were made for the event which drew a large
and excited crowd. The challengers never entered the fire, not for any
lack of enthusiasm on Fra Domenico’s part, but because the Franciscans
repeatedly delayed the proceedings. First, they suggested that Fra
Domenico’s clothes were bewitched; then, that his crucifix was
enchanted; and, finally, they objected to Fra Domenico carrying the host
through the flames.47 The restless crowd finally lost their
patience, especially as a sudden downpour left them soaking wet. They
had come to see a miracle and Savonarola had failed to deliver. Van
Paassen lays the blame for this turn of events on Savonarola himself.
"He had frequently declared that his words would be confirmed by
supernatural evidence. And so the people were taking him at his word."48
The whole episode, he adds, is evidence that a whole nation "may
suddenly go stark mad."49
Madness or not, the events that day were disastrous
for Savonarola. Immediately, the spell was broken. The friar was now
considered a fraud. The next day, an enraged mob attacked the monastery
where Savonarola lived. The authorities took advantage of the situation
to arrest him and his two close friends, Fra Domenico and Fra Silvestro,
who would die with him. The pope, as soon as he heard of the friars’
arrest, "wrote to express his delight at the measures Florence had taken
to ‘repress the mad folly of that son of iniquity’ … leave was then
granted to examine the Friar etiam per torturam."50
This was necessary because clergy could not be tried (and certainly not
tortured) in a secular court without papal approval.
The trial lasted for weeks and torture was used
regularly on all three friars. At the end of the cruel proceedings
Savonarola was "an inert bag of bones and crushed flesh."51
The pope sent Gioacchino Torriano, the director general of the Dominican
order, and Francesco Remolines, bishop of Ilerda and auditor of the
governor of Rome, to examine him. They were especially interested in
interrogating him concerning his plans for a general council. From these
men, especially Remolines, Savonarola could not expect a fair trial. "We
shall make a good bonfire; I have the verdict already here in my bosom,"
Remolines exclaimed as he arrived. To make the "holy" bishop comfortable
"a beautiful girl dressed as a boy" was provided for his entertainment
Savonarola was convicted of conspiracy to bring about
schism in church and state (a reference to his attempt to overthrow
Alexander VI by a general council), promulgating erroneous teachings
(heresy) and despising the authority of the papal chair.53 As
such, he and his colleagues were sentenced to be hanged and then their
bodies burned. A large crowd gathered to witness the death of Florence’s
"prophet." The three friars were stripped of their ecclesiastical
privileges in a ceremony called degradation that lasted over two hours.54
Towards the end of the ceremony, the presiding bishop, stumbling over
his words, misspoke himself, "I separate you from the church militant
and the church triumphant." Savonarola corrected him, "Only from the
church militant; the other is not your affair."55 The three
friars faced their death with dignity and without fear. One anomaly
needs to be mentioned. Despite the fact that the three friars were
condemned as heretics and were supposedly being punished accordingly,
the pope gave them full absolution on the scaffold so they would not
have to suffer any time in purgatory.56 Surely a curious way
to treat a condemned heretic!
VI. Savonarola’s Doctrine
In many ways Savonarola was a typical medieval Roman
Catholic. Several authors testify to his orthodoxy according to Roman
Catholic standards. Even the cardinals who were confidants of the pope
assured Alexander that Savonarola was "a passionate, sincere, learned
champion of the faith and no heretic."57 Shortly after the
friar’s death, Erlanger reports, the papal envoy tried to find heresy in
Savonarola’s writings: "To the envoy’s mortification nothing heretical
was found in any of the works."58
Most historians, in particular Roman Catholic
historians, agree that Savonarola was a devout and faithful child of
Rome. Horsburgh writes, "in spite of isolated incidents and isolated
passages, the allegiance of Savonarola to Catholic doctrine and to the
Roman supremacy cannot be challenged."59 Van Paassen argues
that the friar "could be called one of the trailblazers of the Council
of Trent where the church did reform herself from within and with her
own machinery … Savonarola … never ceased to subscribe to the church’s
articles of faith and the teachings of the Fathers."60
Sheldon writes, "We find with him no distinct anticipation of the
Protestant creed. He accepted the whole list of Roman Catholic dogmas
which claimed general assent at the time."61 Daniel-Rops
agrees, "His doctrine has never been questioned and his treatise, The
Triumph of Christ, was fashionable in seminaries for many years to
come, even after the Council of Trent."62 Old concurs, "While
one sometimes like to paint Savonarola as a Protestant before his time,
a sort of John the Baptist of the Reformation, he is better understood
as a very devout Catholic."63 Jesuit, John Patrick Donnelly
writes in his introduction to Savonarola’s Prison Meditations,
Savonarola’s overall teaching on grace and
justification follows that of Thomas Aquinas. I would add that fact
that the prison mediations were repeatedly published in Catholic
cities during the Counter-Reformation, where they would not have
passed the censorship of the inquisitors if they contained a fully
Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, especially
since they were written by a friar executed for heresy.64
However, there is also the interesting fact that pope
Paul IV wanted Savonarola’s books placed on the Index of Forbidden
books, calling him "another Luther."65
There is some connection between the Florentine friar
and the Reformation, although doctrinally there was not much agreement.
Luther spoke highly of Savonarola. He "valued Savonarola’s [prison]
meditations so much that he published them twice."66
He called him "a holy man" and added, "Christ canonizes him."67
Elsewhere Luther writes that the friar was "a godly man of Florence,"
whom the pope had persecuted.68
According to another Roman Catholic historian, "Luther had no hesitation
in claiming [Savonarola] as a proto-martyr of the Reformation."69
Rachel Erlanger, who is generally unsympathetic towards Savonarola draws
the following comparison between the friar and Luther:
Like Luther, he declared that a pope could err,
and emphasized the superior authority of Scripture. Like Luther, he
wished to summon a council and was excommunicated by the pope. But
when the Imperial Diet of Worms called on Luther to recant, he
replied he could not and would not recant … Savonarola, by contrast,
seemed incapable of taking a firm stand on anything.70
That is hardly a fair assessment of a man who endured
torture and met his death with courage.
From Savonarola’s writings, we can glean his basic
teachings. The friar believed in the primacy of Peter: "Although Christ
is in heaven as the true and sole head of the church, he has left St.
Peter as his representative on earth … all the faithful should be united
under the pope as the supreme head of the Catholic Church, the mother of
all other churches."71 Savonarola confessed Rome’s Marian
beliefs. He believed in Mary’s immaculate conception: "The Virgin could
not sin … because of the great abundance of the Holy Spirit that filled
her, and thus she was confirmed so that she could not sin."72
He believed that Mary is highly exalted above all creatures: "The Virgin
is not only lady and queen of a land, but of all the angelic creatures,
both earthly and infernal."73 He confessed her perpetual
virginity: "the Mother generated Him in time, a virgin before, during,
and after the birth."74 He trusted in her intercession: "we
therefore have recourse to her as to someone who is most merciful, for
she has given birth to the fount of pity."75
In addition, he advocated prayers to the saints, especially to the
founder of his order, St. Dominic.76 None of this is
surprising in a medieval monk. Nevertheless, Eisenbichler cautions us
not to "overestimate Savonarola’s devotion to the Virgin Mary" and fail
to see that the friar’s preaching is essentially biblical and
Christocentric."77 Nor ought it escape our notice that, when
Savonarola was faced with death, he does not appear to have appealed to
the Virgin or to the saints to help him, as becomes evident when we read
his Prison Meditations in which no mention is made of such
intercession. In addition, Savonarola believed in purgatory and the
associated prayers for the dead: "If you do what I have told you, not
only will you save yourself from Hell, but you might also save yourself
from the pains of Purgatory … everyone should do something good for the
dead, for they wait for our prayers."78
Some of Savonarola’s sermons contain references to freewill that would
indicate a tendency toward Semi-Pelagianism:
God stirs our freewill and has given man time
till death to repent and turn to God and until that time He helps
him and lends him a hand. But once this time has passed, God no
longer relieves him and does not help him any more. And thus, when
one dies in mortal sin one remains obstinate in that sin and can no
longer turn back because he is devoid of divine assistance without
which one cannot release himself.79
Since salvation depends partially on man there can be
no assurance. Savonarola expressed it this way, "Although no one can
know for sure whether he is in the grace of God if not by revelation,
nonetheless a devout person can have some idea of this and some
indication of it."80
Nevertheless, despite Savonarola’s Romish doctrinal
bias, there is some evidence that there was more to the friar’s
preaching than this. We must remember that before the
Counter-Reformation Rome had not officially and irreversibly adopted
many of her modern errors although many of them were widely believed and
taught. Roman Catholicism was more fluid before Trent. Savonarola’s
doctrine was informed by his study of the Scriptures. Unlike many
theologians of his day he did not preach from the Fathers but from
Scripture and in the vernacular with the result that the people could
understand him and profit from his preaching. Savonarola had an
encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible. Crawford describes Savonarola as
"an ardent student of the Bible" who "knew it almost by heart, from
Genesis to Revelation."81 Old agrees: "His knowledge of
Scripture was regarded as extraordinary by his contemporaries. In fact,
he was said to have known much of the Bible by heart."82 This
would stand him in good stead when during his last days prior to his
execution, and deprived of his Bible, he wrote his Prison Meditations
on Psalms 51 and 31: "references to Scripture are ubiquitous … minor
slips or departures from the Vulgate suggest that Savonarola did not
have a Bible at hand as he was writing and that he was quoting from
In addition, as Old points out, Savonarola grounded the authority of his
preaching in the authority of Scripture itself:
Fra Girolamo wants to make it very clear that
God’s Word has authority by virtue of the fact that it is God’s
Word. He says to his congregation, if you ask me about the authority
of my preaching, I would say this: what I say that comes from
Scripture, what I say that is Gospel, has authority; when what I say
comes from elsewhere, then you are not bound to believe it.84
While it would be very difficult to make a case that
Savonarola was an embryonic Protestant yet we may be encouraged to find
hints of evangelical doctrine in his writings.
In the first place there are places in Savonarola’s
writings where he downplays human merit:
Let all the just, whether in heaven or on earth,
come forward and we shall question them before you, whether they
were saved by their own power. All will certainly answer with one
voice … they are not saved by their own merits, not by their own
When faced with death Savonarola did not appeal to
his own merits or to the merits of Mary or of the saints, but to the
merits of Christ Himself: "the merits of Him who always stands at thy
By what merits will I be delivered? Not by my own
merits, O Lord, but in your justice deliver me. In your justice, I
say, not in my own. For I ask for mercy. I do not put forward my own
justice … your grace is your justice, Lord; and grace would not be
grace if it were given because of merits.87
Tell me, O Peter, tell me, O Magdalen, wherefore
are you in Paradise … confess that not by thine own merits hast thou
attained salvation, but by the goodness of God … this grace, these
gifts, were not vouchsafed to thee for thy deserts, O Mary! but
because God loved thee and willed thy salvation.88
In the second place there are occasions in his
sermons where he emphasizes God’s sovereignty in bestowing salvation:
None may come unto Me, saith the Lord, unless he
be brought by the Father. I can not enlighten you inwardly, I can
only strike upon your ears; but what may that avail if your
intellect be not enlightened nor your affections kindled?89
The Scriptures are very plain. They tell us, not
in one place, but in many, that not only the end of our well-doing,
but likewise its beginning, cometh to us from God. In all our good
works it is God who works through us. It is therefore untrue that
the grace of God is obtained by pre-existing works and merits, that
through them we are predestined to everlasting life, as though works
and merits were the cause of predestination. It is all the contrary,
for works and merits are the effect of predestination, and the
divine will the cause of predestination, as we have said before.90
Marvellous is your strength! Who will stop you,
if you should want to make a just person out of a transgressor, a
preacher out of a persecutor? Who can resist you?91
Yet there are other places were Savonarola advocates
a universal love of God and common grace: "Does he not love everybody,
he who became human for the sake of humans and was crucified for
sinners?"92 "He has mercy on sinners when he rewards them
with temporal goods for the good they do in time, and after this life he
punishes them not as much as they deserve."93
Savonarola is a tragic figure in the late medieval
period. Deeply troubled by the miserable condition of the church, he was
sincere in his efforts to reform her. Of his religious sincerity, there
can be no question. Unlike many medieval monks, who were characterised
by sloth, ignorance and sexual immorality, the Florentine friar was
learned, industrious and chaste. Doctrinally, he was with Rome, although
we have noted some favourable tendencies, especially as he faced death.
Had a better pope resided in Rome, Savonarola probably would have had no
quarrel with the church’s hierarchy. It certainly vexed Savonarola’s
soul to have lived during the pontificate of the infamous Borgia pope.
As far as Savonarola’s prophetic gift is concerned I
favour Horsburgh’s explanation:
These revelations originated with Fra Silvestro,
who was of a nervous and excitable disposition, given to talking in
his sleep and with a strong tendency to dreams. These dreams he
communicated to Savonarola, who encouraged him to believe they were
a revelation from God.94
God no longer reveals His will to men through dreams,
for these former ways of revelation ended with the last of Christ’s
apostles (Heb. 1:1-3). Perhaps there was in Savonarola, as Erlanger
claims, a certain amount of self-deception.95 It is obvious
that the friar failed the prophetic test: not everything he predicted
came to pass. Schaff’s assessment is correct: "Savonarola’s prophetic
gift, so-called, was nothing more than political and religious
Savonarola’s death was a travesty, although
inevitable. His only crime was defiance of papal authority. To call him
a heretic is unwarranted. A much better case can be made for the claim
that he was schismatic. Had he succeeded in calling a general council,
something forbidden by pope Pius II in 1460, and having the pope
deposed, he very likely could have plunged the church into another
schism. The Romish church, uninterested in doctrinal reform, but simply
in maintaining its own power, could not risk such an outcome. Therefore
Savonarola had to be silenced, if papal power was to remain intact.
We can only speculate how Savonarola might have
reacted to Luther, but it is more than likely that he would have opposed
him as a disturber of the unity of the Roman church. There is no
indication that he had any sympathy for Wycliffe or Hus, who were true
pre-Reformers. The church was in desperate need of a recovery of the
doctrines of the gospel, that had been buried under heresy and
superstition. Although in his final days Savonarola confessed some
evangelical truth, especially the repudiation of merit in his Prison
Mediations, the friar did not and could not bring the kind of reform
that God granted His church through Luther and Calvin. Therefore, as
tempting as such a thesis might be, we cannot consider the friar to have
been a trailblazer for the Reformation.
1William H. Crawford, Girolamo Savonarola: A Prophet of
(Cincinnati, OH: Jennings and Graham, 1907), p. 33.
Eisenbichler in his "Introduction" to Girolamo Savonarola, A Guide to
Righteous Living and Other Works, trans. Konrad Eisenbichler,
Renaissance and Reformation Texts in Translation: 10 (Toronto, Canada:
Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, University of Toronto,
2003), p. 88.
Daniel-Rops, Church History, vol. 4, trans. Audrey Butler (New
York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1961), p. 229.
Prophet, p. 132.
Erlanger, The Unarmed Prophet: Savonarola in Florence (New York:
McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1988), p. 100.
Unarmed, pp. 100-101.
Church History, vol. 4, p. 231.
Prophet, p. 136.
de la Bedoyere, The Meddlesome Friar and the Wayward Pope: The Story
of the Conflict Between Savonarola and Alexander VI (Garden City,
New York: Hanover House, 1958), p. 141.
van Paassen, A Crown of Fire: The Life and Times of Girolamo
Savonarola (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), p. 283.
Church History, vol. 4, p. 231.
Prophet, p. 163.
la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 162.
Prophet, p. 200.
Paassen, Crown, pp. 255, 261.
la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 198.
Unarmed, p. 2.
Paassen, Crown, p. xi.
la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 87. It should be noted that De la
Bedoyere exerts himself to write a favourable account of Pope Alexander
VI, excusing his vices as best he can. Therefore the reader may not be
altogether surprised to discover at the end of the book both the
Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur of the Roman Catholic Church.
Church History, vol. 4, p. 222; italics his.
Church History, vol. 4, pp. 224-225.
la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 108.
Church History, vol. 4, p. 223.
Paassen, Crown, p. 112.
Paassen, Crown, p. 266.
Prophet, p. 168.
H. S. Horsburgh, The Life of Savonarola (London: Methuen & Co.,
1909), p. 155.
Unarmed, p. 138.
Unarmed, p. 139.
Prophet, p. 174.
Unarmed, p. 142.
Unarmed, p. 166.
Paassen, Crown, p. 248.
la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 24.
la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 94.
Paassen, Crown, p. 254.
Savonarola, p. 162.
la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 194.
la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 192.
la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 191.
la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 174; italics mine.
Church History, vol. 4, p. 232.
H. W. Parker, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2
(Boston, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, repr. 1994), pp. 212-213.
Paassen, Crown, p. 267.
B. Morrali & Sidney Z. Zehler (eds.), Church and State Through the
Centuries (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1928), pp. 132-133.
la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 54.
Ridolfi, The Life of Girolamo Savonarola, trans. Cecil Grayson
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959), p. 242.
Paassen, Crown, p. 276.
Paassen, Crown, p. 277.
la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 229.
Paassen, Crown, p. 243.
Unarmed, p. 280.
Hermann, Savonarola: Der Ketzer von San Marco (Munich: C.
Bertelsmann Verlag, 1977), p. 273. According to Parker, his crime also
included "deceiving the people and inciting them to rebellion" (History,
vol. 2, p. 212).
Savonarola, p. 269.
The Life, p. 270.
The Life, p. 270; Van Paassen, Crown, p. 312.
Paassen, Crown, p. 247.
Unarmed, p. 293.
Savonarola, p. 215.
Paassen, Crown, p. xviii.
C. Sheldon, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2 (Boston, MA:
Hendrickson Publishers, repr. 1994), p. 478.
Church History, vol. 4, p. 235.
63Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the
Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 3 (Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 568.
by Donnelly in Girolamo Savonarola, Prison
Meditations on Psalms 51 and 31, trans and ed. John Patrick
Donnelly, S.J., Reformation Texts with Translation (1350-1650), general
editor, Kenneth Hagen, Series Biblical Studies, vol. 1 (Milwaukee, WI:
Marquette University Press, 1994), p. 28.
by Donnelly in Savonarola, Prison, p. 21.
by Donnelly in Savonarola, Prison, p. 18.
by Donnelly in Savonarola, Prison, p. 27.
Luther, Works, vol. 32 (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press,
1958), p. 88.
la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 221.
Unarmed, p. 298.
Paassen, Crown, pp. 246-247.
Guide, p. 130.
Guide, p. 229.
Guide, p. 234.
Guide, p. 237.
Guide, p. 184.
"Introduction" in Savonarola, Guide, p. 10.
Guide, p. 141.
Guide, p. 142.
Guide, p. 188.
Prophet, p. 34.
Reading, vol. 3, p. 570.
by Donnelly in Savonarola, Prison, p. 20.
Reading, vol. 3, p. 581.
Prison, p. 35.
Prison, p. 71.
Prison, p. 105.
Prophet, p. 123.
Prophet, p. 95.
Vineyard, Great Preachers and Their Preaching: Savonarola, Revealing
God’s Righteousness (Hammond, Indiana: First Baptist Church of
Hammond, 1975), p. 38.
Prison, p. 77.
Prison, p. 101.
Prison, p. 123.
Savonarola, pp. 196-197.
Unarmed, p. 49.
Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids,
MI: Eerdmans, 1960), p. 692.