The Original Bonfire of the Vanities
Savonarola. No Ayatollah.
The Conflicted Image
of a Revolutionary Prophet.
Jesus, Refuge of the weary,
Blest Redeemer, whom we love,
Fountain in life's desert dreary,
Savior from the world above,
Oh, how oft Thine eyes, offended,
Gaze upon the sinner's fall!
Yet, upon the cross extended,
Thou didst bear the pain of all.
Do we pass that cross unheeding,
Breathing no repentant vow,
Though we see Thee wounded, bleeding,
See Thy thorn-encircled brow?
Yet Thy sinless death hath brought us
Life eternal, peace, and rest;
Only what Thy grace hath taught us
Calms the sinner's stormy breast.
Jesus, may our hearts be burning
With more fervent love for Thee!
May our eyes be ever turning
To Thy cross of agony
Till in glory, parted never
From the blessed Savior's side,
Graven in our hearts forever
Dwell the cross, the Crucified!
By Ronald Fritze
Posted on January 21, 2010, from Athens, Alabama
“Jesus, Refuge of the Weary” is a well known hymn. It appears in the hymnals of various denominations and is popular among Lutherans, which is how I know it. It is usually sung to the tune O Du Liebe Meiner Liebe. The hymn’s popularity among Lutherans stems from its message, which is a reflection on the crucifixion of Christ and how it brings salvation to humanity by grace alone (sola gratia) and faith alone (sola fide).
A reader paging through a hymnal will also note that the author of the lyrics was Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), a Dominican friar. We are drawn, then, to the question: Is there a connection between a late medieval Catholic priest and the contents of Protestant hymnals? Is so, what might that connection be?
He Becomes the Preacher.
The story of Savonarola’s career is both fascinating and tragic. He was born in Ferrara. His father was a banker of minimal accomplishment, but his grandfather, Michele Savonarola, was a court physician who was well known as a scholar of medical and humanistic studies. It appears that Savonarola initially planned to
follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and study medicine. In a certain way, he did follow his grandfather’s path because Michele appears to have been a plain living man of integrity and Christian piety who had little use for the ostentatious and immoral court of Ferrara.
In 1475 Savonarola changed his course and entered the religious order of the Dominicans in Bologna. The Dominicans had a well deserved reputation for the high quality of their preaching and their scholarship. It was a religious order where the scholarly Savonarola would be very much at home. He studied theology until 1482 when he was assigned to the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence. There he served without much success as a preacher. His inexperience and his northern accent did not find favor with the ears of his rather particular Florentine listeners.
Out in the countryside, Savonarola’s preaching was much better received. In 1487 he returned to Bologna to teach in the Dominican school. He also preached in neighboring cities, prophesying about impending doom. His indictment of a corrupt Church and a sinful Italy, coupled with the promise that an era of reform would soon follow, attracted a following and a growing reputation.
Eloquent and Puritanical
In 1490 Lorenzo de’ Medici, at the behest of the humanist Pico della Mirandola, reassigned Savonarola back to the convent of San Marco in Florence. Attracting the patronage of the crafty
politician and banker Lorenzo de’ Medici and the freethinker Pico was a singular accomplishment for the puritanical and forthright Savonarola. Clearly his preaching had improved significantly over the previous few years.
Savonarola’s eloquence brought the luster to San Marco that his patron Lorenzo sought. Savonarola also attracted an enthusiastic and devoted following. His sermons with their focus on apocalyptic events were considered to be sensationalistic by his critics. The Dominicans of San Marco quickly elected him to be their prior. Savonarola promptly reestablished the strict Observant rule for the Dominican Order in the convent.
Savonarola’s sermons became increasingly critical of clerical corruption, tyrannical government, and the exploitation and oppression of the poor by the wealthy. Despite these themes, Savonarola retained the favor of Lorenzo de’ Medici and attended the great man’s deathbed in 1492.
The Spoils of Successful Prophecy
Not long after Lorenzo’s death, Savonarola began to prophesy that an invader from the north was coming soon to scourge sinful Italy and open the way for reform. Though his attacks on the status quo must have made many of the elite uneasy, Savonarola continued to enjoy the support of Piero de’ Medici, the heir of Lorenzo.
Events in 1494 seemed to confirm Savonarola’s prophecies. Late in the summer, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy to conquer
the Kingdom of Naples. The French army entered Florentine territory and threatened to sack Florence. Piero’s efforts to placate Charles VIII aroused the wrath of the Florentines, who overthrew the Medici domination of the city and restored the old republican style of government.
In the eyes of many, Savonarola’s prediction about an invasion had been fulfilled. The prior of San Marco emerged with tremendous moral authority in Florence. He began to prophesy that Florence was destined to be the leader of the reform and renewal of Christendom, that it would be a New Jerusalem, and that these great achievements would also grant great wealth and power for Florence. Most Florentines enthusiastically embraced Savonarola’s prophecies, although his enemies complained that he was just telling his followers what they wanted to hear.
Savonarola’s staunch advocacy of the restoration of republican government set him at odds with both the former supporters of the Medicis and those who hoped to rule Florence as an elitist oligarchy. But most Florentines were, like Savonarola, supporters of a republic. Many were also receptive to the prior’s message of austere morality.
Bonfires of the 'Vanities'
Florence had earned its reputation for immorality through gambling and sexual profligacy. Its wealthier citizens were extremely materialistic as well. Savonarola preached against hedonistic behavior, and the Florentines responded enthusiastically with fantastic public rituals. The people would bring forth luxurious possessions — expensive clothing, jewelry, make-up, worldly books, perfumes, other frivolities — and cast them into great fires. These were the famous bonfires of the “vanities.”
History often portrays Savonarola as a harsh, uncompromising puritan and a relentless killjoy. His public persona tended to conform to that image, although privately Savonarola was widely reported to be mild and patient with people. Accused of hypocrisy by his foes, Savonarola by all appearances was a genuine and deeply committed Christian. The words of “Jesus, Refuge of the Weary” reflected his deepest belief — and they were not mere words. Savonarola was not a cynic.
Eventually, inevitably, the tide began to turn against Savonarola.
His prophecy that Charles VIII would launch a second invasion of Italy did not materialize, a fact much heralded by his enemies, bringing Savonarola’s reputation as a prophet into doubt.
Meanwhile, rebels in Pisa raised an insurrection against Florentine rule. When Florence proved unable to suppress the rebels, the republican government’s capabilities were called into question, as were Savonarola’s predictions that a godly Florence was poised for greatness.
Italians in Milan, Venice, and Rome urged leaders in Florence to join their anti-French alliance. Doing so would make Florence an enemy of the pro-French republican government championed by Savonarola.
A War of Words with the Pope
The prophet’s criticisms of Pope Alexander VI earned for
Savonarola another powerful set of enemies. Savonarola went so far as to question the validity of Alexander VI’s election as pope and even called for the gathering a general council of the Church, which would effectively revive the Conciliar Movement. The pope struck back during the summer of 1497 by excommunicating Savonarola.
Excommunicated, derided by his foes, a pawn to unfolding events, the friar clung to his support at home — and the support did not waver.
Still, all of these circumstances gave aid and comfort to those elements in Florence seeking to restore Medici-style oligarchic rule over the city. Plots developed and failed. Executions among the opposition followed, stirring a lust for revenge among the victims’ families toward Savonarola and the leaders of the republican government. The struggle between Savonarola’s supporters and his enemies hung in a balance that would be tipped by surprise and circumstance.
Perception Becomes Hotter than Flames
Most bizarrely, it was a trial by fire that caused Savonarola’s hold over the Florentines to collapse. And when it came, the collapse was sudden and decisive. It was brought about by a public spectacle raised by a clever challenge.
The local Franciscans challenged Savonarola’s Dominicans to ordeal by fire. Two great stacks of wood soaked in oil would be laid out with a passage two feet wide in between. These piles of wood would be set on fire, and then a chosen representative from the Franciscans and the Dominicans would walk between the two infernos. The onlookers would see who God chose to protect and let survive.
News of the challenge and expectations for carnage raised emotions in Florence to a fever pitch. The fateful day was 7 April. An immense crowd of Florentines gathered to watch the spectacle. Their expectation was that either someone on one side would perform a miracle while the other was burned to death, or that both the Franciscan and the Dominican fire walkers would be crispy critters before they could pass through the flames. It was guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser.
When the rival groups of friars came together, disputes broke out. First the Franciscans protested against the elaborate robes that the Dominican Domenico da Pescia was to wear. They claimed that Savonarola had enchanted the robes. So Pescia removed one layer of clothing. The Franciscans protested again. So he removed a second layer.
Savonarola had borne a communion host before the Dominican procession. Pescia was to carry it through the ordeal. Once more the Franciscans protested. They said it would be sacrilege for Pescia to carry Christ’s body as it would burn with him. Lengthy arguments followed, which included whether only the accidents (outward physical appearance) of the host would burn, or whether the host’s essence (Christ’s body) would burn.
While these debates drug on, the crowd grew restless. In the end, there was no ordeal because the two sides could not agree on conditions. It is doubtful that the Franciscans ever intended to send one of their number between the flames at all. But the spectators did not get their spectacle, particularly the gruesome death that appeared to be guaranteed. They blamed Savonarola for their disappointment and also for just about anything else that made them unhappy.
Arrest, Torture, Trial, and Death
Savonarola’s fall followed quickly. The very next day a mob attacked the convent of San Marco. Powerful enemies embedded in the mob, claiming authority over Florence, took advantage of the chaos and took Savonarola into custody.
Organizing quickly, Savonarola’s enemies under papal authority placed the friar and two of his followers on trial. All three were found guilty of heresy, fraud, and disobedience. Under torture, Savonarola and companions signed damning confessions. Savonarola recanted, but then made another confession.
The sentence for the three was death. On 23 May 1498, they were hung and then burned along with the scaffold in the Piazza della Signoria. The fire was allowed to rage until all their remains were reduced to ash. The ashes were then gathered up and hauled to the Arno River, where they were dumped in the water and swept away to prevent anyone from making a holy relict of Savonarola’s remains.
Despite the efforts of his enemies to erase him from memory, Savonarola was remembered with reverence and affection by many Florentines. The painter Sandro Botticelli, a devoted follower of Savonarola, continued to produce paintings based on themes dear to the friar’s religious teachings. Other painters followed Botticelli’s example and created works favorable to Savonarola’s legacy.
Did He Influence Luther?
Some historians have claimed that Savonarola influenced Luther in his development of the theology of justification by faith alone. Certainly the words “Jesus, Refuge of the Weary” show that Savonarola advocated a relationship between Jesus and Christians that was very similar to Luther’s teachings. But there is no evidence beyond creative speculation that Savonarola’s ideas influenced Luther.
On the Piazza della Signoria today, one can find a modest plaque commemorating the death of Savonarola. Other efforts to memorialize the fallen leader attest to his lasting legacy. Some years ago Florentines began to hold a procession on the anniversary of Savonarola’s execution to lay flowers at the site of the scaffold. The Dominican Order is also working to get Savonarola’s excommunication lifted so that they can seek his canonization.
But while some seek to restore Savonarola as a religious figure of compassion and integrity, others view him as a bigoted fanatic or even a charlatan. Disputes over Savonarola’s reputation appear to be a permanent aspect of history.
The assessment of the great Italian historian Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540), who as an adolescent lived through Savonarola’s domination of Florence, sums up the conflicted views. Guicciardini was a supporter of the friar and may have been one of the boys who participated in the bonfires of the vanities. In 1508-9, he brought out his History of Florence, where this inconclusive but eloquent judgment of Savonarola comes from:
Many have continued for long to believe that he was really sent by God and a true prophet in spite of the excommunication, his trial and death. I am doubtful and I have not been able to make up my mind at all; I must wait—if I live long enough—for time to reveal the truth. But I draw this conclusion: if he were really a good man, then we have seen in our days a great prophet; if he were wicked, then we have seen a great man, because, apart from his learning, if he were able to feign in public for so many years so great a mission without ever being caught out in a falsehood, one must admit that he had a most remarkable judgment, talent, and power of invention.