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