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“The Italian religious and political reformer, Girolamo Savonarola, was born of a noble family at Ferrara and in 1474, entered the Dominican order at Bologna. He seems to have preached in 1482 at Florence, but his first trial was a failure. In a convent at Brescia his zeal won attention, and in 1489 he was recalled to Florence. His second appearance in the pulpit of San Marco — on the sinfulness and apostasy of the time — was a great popular triumph, and by some he was hailed as an inspired prophet.”

I recently read about Girolamo Savonarola. There’s an interesting article titled The Medieval Synthesis Under Attack: Savonarola and the Protestant Reformation at

I had thought of Martin Luther as the main protagonist in the Reformation story; in fact its roots went much deeper and further back.

“The Reformation was not simply the result of the NINETY-FIVE THESES of Martin Luther (1483-1546). Nor was the Reformation an overwhelmingly religious phenomenon. Instead, I think we need to pay close attention to Savonarola for there we find a three-pronged attack. This attack took the shape of first, a religious protest, second, a protest against wealth and splendor and third, a protest of a political nature. So, the three ingredients are clearly Religion, Economics and Politics.” (

I was fascinated to see the seed of Puritan, Pietistic and Calvinist thinking in pre-Reformation thought. The deeply anti-humanist, strangely anti-aesthetic and anti-intellectual strains we recognize even today in evangelical, pentecostal and fundamentalist circles stretches way, way back.

“Savonarola … called on the population of (Florence) to burn all its books, paintings, sculptures, luxuries and fineries – everything, in a word, that drove men away from higher spirituality. He wanted the people to return to the simple, unadorned ways of God, ways which once had been but which were now subsumed in possessions and possessiveness. The Weepers were urged to make “bonfires of the vanities” in the Piazza del Signoria – great conflagrations in which their worldly possessions were sacrificed. Savonarola, a man born and bred in the Renaissance, rejected humanism, rejected modern art, rejected the new science, rejected anything that was not oriented toward the divine presence. And who would know more about what God wanted than Fra Savonarola – after all, he was in constant communication with God and the angels… Wigs, disguises, volumes of the Latin poets, especially Boccaccio, Dante and Petrarch — all this, and more, was to be tossed into the bonfire. Jewelry, perfumes, soaps, silks, mirrors, hair combs, harps, chessboards, playing cards were brought out of Florentine homes by the wagonload. But why? Why would the people of Florence part with their possessions? Paintings, especially those depicting naked women – pornographic, in the eyes of Savonarola – were also destroyed.While Savonarola oversaw these great conflagrations, these great acts of collective purgation, he was also preaching some of his most memorable sermons. On the popes in general he said, “Popes and prelates speak against pride and ambition and they are plunged into it up to their ears.” (ibid)

The anti-Papal vitriolic of the reformers in fact found a precedence in Savonarola’s sermons which referred to the Vatican as “a house of prostitution where harlots sit upon the throne of Solomon and signal to passersby: Whoever can pay enters and does what he wishes.” Savonarola said of Pope Alexander, “he is no longer a Christian. He is an infidel, a heretic, and as such has ceased to be pope.” (ibid)

Savonarola wanted to turn Florence into a “Christian Republic”. (This reminds me of contemporary evangelical “Dominionism” and “Kingdom theology”). He sought to achieve this through coercion and fear (and here I call to mind Spurgeon’s sermons of hellfire and damnation – nothing new I guess). Savonarola condemned gambling, frivolity and immodest attire – he even encouraged children to denounce their errant parents.

 “If some of this reminds you of the theocratic dictatorship of a John Calvin (1509-1564) or Jean Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) offhand remark that those who do not conform “will be forced to be free,” or the totalitarianism of Stalinist Russia, well, then, you are getting the point.(ibid)

“The word reformation shows that the quest for something better was perhaps characteristically medieval. It was backward-looking. Indeed, the medieval thinker saw early Christianity and the primitive Church through rose-colored glasses… three hundred years earlier, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) wished that before he died he would like to see the Church return to its ancient ways. His was a typical, medieval appeal. And during the 16th century, an educated humanist like Erasmus believed in a lost age of holiness, sanctity and purity. The Reformation always looked backward.”(ibid)

Savonarola’s vision of a reformed Church failed: He was excommunicated and finally, in 1498, by order of pope Alexander VI, “beaten, strangled and burned in the public square of Florence, Italy.” ( He was too early perhaps, still too much the medieval man. But the winds of change were to blow with increased ferocity until another disenchanted monk – Martin Luther – would sail with this wind to create the cataclysmic schism of the Reformation. Savonarola ‘lived on’ long after his death, manifesting like some troubled spirit through subsequent centuries. His narrow, mean spirit manifests in the writings of John Calvin, the bigotry of the Puritans of Salem, in the the cruel sermons of Charles Spurgeon and in the legalism of the Pentecostals. They all evidence the same repressive spirit of fear, coercion and the prurient obsession with the denial of the sensual. It was, I believe, this same anti-artistic, anti-humanist spirit in the Evangelical churches that Francis Schaeffer attempted to address through the L’Abri fellowship lectures, and his writings. We find Savonarola in any number of christian books, broadcasts and websites today – all of which use the scriptures to justify their pharisaism.

“John Calvin listed some of the evils of his day – evils which he found in the Church and in human nature as well: self-love, ambition, pride, greed, wanton sex, dancing, adultery, drunkenness, frivolity, gossip, hypocrisy and a hundred other things. “Young people have lost that deference to their elders on which the social order depends,” wrote Calvin.
they reject all correction. Sexual offenses, rapes, adulteries, incests and seductions are more common than ever before. How monstrous that the world should have been overthrown by such dense clouds for the last three or four centuries, so that it could not see clearly how to obey Christ’s commandment to love our enemies. Everything is in shameful confusion; everywhere I see only cruelty, plots, frauds, violence, injustice, shamelessness while the poor groan under the oppression and the innocent are arrogantly and outrageously harassed. God must be asleep.” (ibid)

“As (Savonarola) 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 thousand people.”

Daniel-Rops describes Savonarola’s Florence as a “dictatorship” and adds, ‘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 following century.”

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.”

“The Florentines reveled 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 self-important children … Van Paassen adds that the day following the friar’s death “the populace indulged in orgies lewd and obscene.”

“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.”

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