Savonarola's Preaching Got Him Burned - 1498

Updated Apr 27, 2023
Savonarola's Preaching Got Him Burned - 1498

Today tourists by the thousands travel to Florence, Italy, to view the glorious art of the Renaissance. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, Boccaccio, Ghiberti, Raphael -- they all painted, wrote, or sculpted in this Italian city. Their works are the treasures of Florence. Yet, when Jerome Savonarola (1452-1498) looked at Renaissance Florence, the beauty, glory, and grandeur created by the artists were overshadowed by the decadence, corruption, and moral rot there.

Passionate Preaching, Powerful Predictions

The Medici family of Florence were the great art patrons who had beautified their city with art still admired as among the world's best. When Savonarola, a Dominican friar, came to Florence in the 1480's, Lorenzo de Medici, the Magnificent, was in the last years of his life. Savonarola shook the population by his sermons from Revelation, warning of the wrath to come. Tears came to the listeners' eyes as they also heard his tender assurances of God's mercy. In warning of coming judgment, Savonarola also predicted the impending deaths of Lorenzo de Medici, the pope, and the king of Naples.

In 1491 Savonarola was elected prior of St. Mark's convent in Florence. The convent had been enriched by the Medicis, and it was considered the duty of the new superior to pay homage to Lorenzo. But Savonarola refused. He said his election was from God, not the Medicis!

No Easy Absolution

Within a few months Lorenzo lay on his deathbed. Oppressed by his sins, he called for Savonarola to absolve him. Savonarola promised Lorenzo absolution on three conditions. First, he should repent and have faith in God's mercy. Lorenzo readily agreed. Second, he should give up his ill-gotten wealth. Lorenzo was more reluctant on this one, but did agree. Finally, he should restore the republican liberties of Florence. At this Lorenzo turned his face to the wall and did not reply. Savonarola left without absolving the ruler. Shortly after Lorenzo died, Pope Innocent VIII also died.

The infamous Cardinal Borgia was elected Pope Alexander VI. In one of his sermons Savonarola told of seeing a hand appearing in the sky bearing a flaming sword with the words, "Behold the sword of the Lord will descend suddenly and quickly upon the earth." He warned of judgment for sins and mercy to the faithful. The pope had reason to be concerned!

Dramatic Changes at Florence

When the French King Charles VIII invaded Italy in 1494, the Medici rulers fled. Through negotiation Savonarola was able to prevent King Charles from sacking Florence and used his influence to move the city towards a more godly government. Like Calvin later in Geneva, Savonarola never held political office, but his sermons heavily influenced the city government. Some reforms were immediate -- relief was brought to the starving population, shops were opened to give work to the unemployed, a bank was established for charitable loans and taxes were reduced. All people were exhorted to place their trust in the Lord. Two key ideas in Savonarola's Florence were that government by one man would become tyrannical and the very new idea that the people were the source of power, with the right to elect magistrates.

Savonarola wanted Florence to be a Christian republic with God as governor. The Gospel would be the basis of law, and the council passed strong regulations against vice, frivolity, gambling, and extravagant dress. Many of Savonarola's sermons were based on the Old Testament prophets and Revelation. He maintained that his mission was to warn people of the coming day of judgment.

'Bonfire of the Vanities'

Savonarola had a great appeal to the children of Florence. Boys who had once roamed the streets creating mayhem and throwing rocks at houses were organized into a kind of sacred military, marching through the city singing hymns and taking collections for the poor. During the carnival season, they went from house to house and collected trinkets, cosmetics, luxury items, and obscene books to be burned on the last day of the carnival. A huge "bonfire of vanities" was created in the public square -- sixty feet high with a forty foot circumference at its base. There was great enthusiasm for the changes Savonarola brought to Florence -- but apparently not enough regeneration of hearts. The people soon turned on the reformer.

Want to Be a Cardinal?

Pope Alexander VI wanted to silence Savonarola's denunciations of the corruption and immorality in the church and offered to make him a cardinal. Savonarola refused the offer. The Pope finally condemned Savonarola for announcing he was a special messenger from God and excommunicated him. Savonarola unsuccessfully tried to bring together a convention of European leaders to remove the decadent Borgia from the papacy. The Florentine crowd turned on Savonarola. He was imprisoned and severely tortured on the rack. On one day alone he was drawn up by ropes fourteen times and then suddenly dropped.

In the face of death, Savonarola prayed, "O Lord, a thousand times have you wiped out my iniquity. I do not rely on my own justification, but on thy mercy." In between his tortures, he wrote meditations on Psalms 32 and 51, which Martin Luther later published, calling them "a piece of evangelical testing and Christian piety."

Savonarola was hanged and then burned at a stake on May 23, 1498. As the bishop stripped him of his priestly garb, he said, "I separate thee from the church militant and from the church triumphant." Savonarola replied, "That is beyond your power."

Timeline of Savonarola's Life

Savonarola lived in a time that was in many ways like our own. It was an age of great discoveries, extraordinary artistic and communications achievements, the emergence of new views of the world, great self-consciousness, and pride in human achievement. It was also an age of restlessness in the world of faith and religion that was bound to erupt sooner or later. Here are just some of the many great people and momentous events during the years Savonarola lived (1452-1498):

1452 - Savonarola born; Ghiberti completed his magnificent bronze doors at Florence baptistery; Leonardo da Vinci born 
1453 - Gutenberg prints the Mazarin Bible at Mainz; Turks convert Constantinople's magnificent St. Sophia into a mosque
1455 - Painter Fra Angelico born
1456 - Trial of Joan of Arc annulled
1465 - Erasmus born 1469 - Lorenzo de Medici begins rule of Florence which ended in 1492; Niccolo Machiavelli born
1473 - Birth of Nicolaus Copernicus
1477 - Chaucer's Canterbury Tales published by William Caxton
1478 - Birth of Thomas More
1480 - Inquisition against Jews begins in Spain
1481 - Botticelli and others paint frescoes in Rome's Sistine Chapel
1483 - Martin Luther born
1492 - Columbus' voyage to the New World; Spain conquers Granada, ending kingdom of Moors
1493 - Pope Alexander VI issues a "bull" dividing New World between Spain and Portugal 
1494 - Charles VIII invades Italy; Pope Alexander VI takes refuge in Castel Sant' Angelo
1495-98 - Da Vinci paints Last Supper 
1498 - Michelangelo completes "Pieta" sculpture in St. Peter's, Rome

Savonarola In His Own Words

[Savonarola spoke out most strongly against the corrupt clergy of his day, especially those in Rome]

In these days, prelates and preachers are chained to the earth by the love of earthly things. The care of souls is no longer their concern. They are content with the receipt of revenue. The preachers preach to please princes and to be praised by them. They have done worse. They have not only destroyed the Church of God. They have built up a new Church after their own patter. Go to Rome and see! In the mansions of the great prelates there is no concern save for poetry and the oratorical art. Go thither and see! Thou shalt find them all with the books of the humanities in their hands and telling one another that they can guide men's souls by means of Virgil, Horace, and Cicero....The prelates of former days had fewer gold miters and chalices, and what few they possessed were broken up and given to relieve the needs of the poor. But our prelates, for the sake of obtaining chalices, will rob the poor of their sole means of support. Dost thou not know what I would tell thee! What doest thou, O Lord! Arise, and come to deliver thy Church from the hands of devils, from the hands of tyrants, from the hands of iniquitous prelates (quoted in Philip Schaff. History of the Christian Church. VI, p. 688).

It is not difficult to see why he incurred the wrath of Rome. He spoke of Pope Boniface VIII as wicked and beginning his pontificate "like a fox and ending it like a dog." Speaking of the seat of all iniquity, he said: It begins in Rome where the clergy make mock of Christ and the saints; yea, are worse than Turks and worse than Moors. They traffic in the sacraments. They sell benefices to the highest bidder. Have not the priests in Rome courtesans and grooms and horses and dogs? Have they not palaces full of tapestries and silks, of perfumes and lackeys? Seemeth it, that this is the Church of God?

Savonarola and Salvation by Grace

Savonarola differed from Wycliffe, Hus, and Luther in that he never quarreled with the theology of the Roman Catholic Church. He was more of a moral reformer than a theologian. Yet, as seen in the following quote, he grasped the biblical understanding of justification by faith that would be more fully developed by later Reformers.

Savonarola said: 

We must regenerate the Church ... God remits the sins of men, and justifies them by his mercy. There are as many compassions in heaven as there are justified men upon earth; for none are saved by their own works. No man can boast of himself; and if, in the presence of God, we could ask all these justified sinners -- Have you been saved by your own strength? - all would reply as with one voice, 'Not unto us, O Lord! not unto us; but to thy name be the glory!' -- Therefore, O God, do I seek thy mercy, and I bring not unto thee my own righteousness; but when by thy grace thou justifies one, then thy righteousness belongs unto me; for grace is the righteousness of God. -- O God, save me by thy righteousness, that is to say, in thy Son, who alone among men was found without sin! (quoted in J. H. Merle D'Aubigne's History of the Reformation. Vol. 1, pp. 96-97)

Savonarola, like most Christian Reformers, gave special emphasis to the authority of the Bible. He commented: "I preach the regeneration of the church, taking the Scriptures as my sole guide."

Hazardous Vocation (Editor's Notebook)

Preaching has always been a hazardous vocation, or calling. Even some of the greatest preachers, or perhaps we should say, especially the greatest preachers, found their messages often earned them hostility, exile, even death.

Think of one of the greatest of them all -- Chrysostom, the "golden tongue" -- Bishop at Constantinople, exiled at least twice and sent out into the desert to die by the political authorities. Or think of John Bunyan. We remember him mostly as the author of The Pilgrim's Progress, second only to the Bible in circulation. But in his own day he was better known as a preacher than a writer, and his powerful Puritan preaching landed him in Bedford jail for almost twelve years.

Another of the greatest preachers, John Wesley, was not allowed to preach in some dioceses, not even in his own deceased pastor father's church (so he went outside in the church cemetery and preached from his father's gravestone).

Savonarola was not the first notable Christian to be turned upon by the city of Florence. One hundred fifty years before Savonarola was born, Dante, author of The Divine Comedy, one of the greatest creations in Christian literature, or any literature ever, was banished from the city.

And Savonarola was not the last 'revivalist' who would be rejected by the very populace to whom he had brought powerful spiritual renewal. Jonathan Edwards, a central figure in the "Great Awakening" in the American colonies in the 1730s, was kicked out of his Northhampton, Massachusetts pastorate after having faithfully served there for 22 years.

We can only wonder how these kinds of preachers would fare today. Frankly, I find it difficult to imagine them being much impressed by the growing tendency today to import market research methodologies into church life. They were far more tuned to the Master than the market--even though far more risky.

--Ken Curtis


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