Savonarola, Preacher and Prophet

Author: Henri Daniel-Rops


By Henri Daniel - Rops

The Opening Act of The Drama

The Cry of Righteous Indignation: Savonarola

The Church had certainly not deserved such a pope as Alexander VI, and a chorus of voices rose from her midst, protesting against this manifold wickedness. One was more vehement and moving than all the rest, but unhappily its vehemence and emotion were carried to excess.

`Come, infamous Church, listen to the words of your Lord: "I have given you splendid robes, but you have made them cover idols; I have given you precious vessels, but you have used them to exalt your false pride. Your simony has profaned my sacraments; lechery has made of you a pockmarked harlot. And you no longer even blush for your sins! Whore that you are! You sit on Solomon's throne, and beckon to all who pass you by. Those who have money you bid a welcome to, and have your pleasure of them; but the man of goodwill is cast outside your doors!"'

These dreadful words had echoed through the nave of Santa Maria del Fiori during the Lenten season of 1497, and had been heard by countless throngs of people, pressed one against the other, filing the great cathedral to capacity. The man who had uttered them from the height of its pulpit was a small, spare, shrivelled figure, with heavily lined features and the full, expressive lips of the prophet, created for invective and imprecation. While he spoke an unearthly glow illuminated his pale face; his green eyes became darts of fire, and the sleeves of his black-and-white Dominican habit seemed to circle around him like the wings of some strange night-bird. This little friar alone could fill the immense cathedral with his listeners, magnetizing all who heard him, turning this human mass into a single mind, with himself as its living voice. And no one who heard his indictment doubted for a moment the righteousness of his words.

He was so persuasive. Now sweetly gentle, quivering, vibrating with love, like the plaint of a flute or violin; but more often harsh as a tocsin, crashing down on his listeners like a peal of thunder. In the pulpit he seemed utterly transfigured, quite different from the monk who walked the cloisters every day, and who might be considered a somewhat colourless individual. As soon as he mounted the steps of the rostrum a new spirit animated his whole being: he was seized by a mysterious trance. It was as if he had inherited the very fire and style from those Old Testament prophets--Isaiah, Amos and Jeremiah--whose mesage he so loved to interpret. And every one of the people standing there listening, trembling, echoing his own panting emotion, fully understood his message, whether great or small, rich or poor, scholars absorbed in the pleasures of the intellect or humble artisans. Among those lost in the crowd, as spellbound as the rest, were such men as Botticelli, Della Robbia, Micheangelo and even Pico della Mirandola, Giucciarni, Machiavelli, John Colet and Commines. Few of his hearers escaped the domination of this awe-inspiring man, in whom the fire of the Holy Spirit seemed to burn so brightly. The phenomenon of his hold upon Florence had already lasted seven years.

The friar's name was Girolamo Savonarola....At San Gimignano he had suddenly let his sentences stream forth in an unrestrained fllod, straight from his heart, and had discovered that this was the way to everwhelm men's souls. Savonarola's threefold cry to doom resounded round the feet of the lofty towers whose jagged battlements enclosed the little town, with such force that it was heard throughout the whole of Tuscany: `The Chruch will be reformed, but Italy will first be scourged, and her chastisement is imminent!' From Brescia to Genoa his call had aroused the same echoes of fear and fury. By the time he returned to Florence Savonarola had learned that truth finds entry into hardened hearts not through reason, but through the blessed folly of the Cross.

Henceforth Savonarola was the centre of one of those popular emotional movements which occur from time to time, and which suddenly lift a man to the crest of fame, only to desert him and cast him out of favour shrortly ofterwards. He became well known. The sermons which had recently been ridiculed now attracted huge crowds. One after another his enemies gave way before him. Savonarola had been made prior of San Marco, where so many young men were now offering themselves as postulants, that the monastery's numbers rose to over two hundred, and masters reached the stage when it was difficult to find accomodation for any more new entrants. The friar had publicly castigated the Medici for their luxury and their general way of life, but to everyone's astonishments Lorenzo the Magnificent bore these rebukes in silence, and refrained from punishing their author. Even better, it was Friar Girolamo whom he summoned to his bedside as he lay dying.

What magnetic force gave this slight, shrivelled and unprepossessing man such power over his fellow citizens?

He himself supplied the answer: his power was supernatural. Savonarola was convinced that he had been invested with that gift of prophecy which God had promised the most faithful of His witnesses; and since he was speaking in the name of the Almighty, no being on earth had the right to silence him. Moreover he had flashes of extraordinary insight, which unquestionably enabled him to predict correctly the course of several future events....

This was the theme of all Savorarola's sermons: the Bride of Christ was tainted with sin and must be purified. She must regain her faith. Reform had probably never before had so vehement an advocate. There had been no one more resolutely determined to bring to light all the abuses and denounce every breach of faith. Alexander VI's conduct brought this righteous indignation to its climax: with their cliques of voracious nephews and courtier- cardinals, Sixtus IV and Innocent VIII had seemed unworthy enough, but the Borgia on St. Peter's throne must surely be the `abomination of desolation' foretold by the Scriptures. Was this simonical and profligate Pope, who flaunted his mistresses and his bastards, still the rightful head of the Church, the Apostle's successor, entrusted with Peter's Keys? But punishments could not be long delayed; the forces of heavenly wrath were already on the warpath. A new Nebuchadnezzar, a new Cyrus, was about to intervene in history. Stretching his arms towards the Alpine horizon, Friar Girolamo appeared to summon this mysteious instrument of God to come forth at his command.

It was now that the drama came to a head, and that Savanarola's mistakes began. Savonarola's fall was as rapid as his rise had been. In February 1498 Alexander VI warned the Florentines that unless they surrendered the preacher he would place their city under interdict. They assessed the danger implicit in his threat. Interdict would involve not merely blockade and economic ruin, but also an attack by all the enemies of Florence, who would be only too happy to obey the Pope's voice in this respect. Medici supporters, advocates of italian unity, and all those who believed in freedom of thought and good living united to destroy the troublesome friar.

(1961), Image edition, pp. 309- 314, 317.

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Spring 1994, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.