Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Life and Death of Girolamo Savonarola

A Dominican friar and prophet Girolamo Savonarola, living between 1452-1498, is considered the forerunner of the Reformation. A fasting, praying 15th century John the Baptist of his time, Savonorola's messages were fire, light, and searing conviction. Savonarola was a monk known for his learning and his sanctity, but helpless, almost ludicrous, as a preacher.

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.

Under Lorenzo the Magnificent art and literature had felt the humanist revival of the 15th century, whose spirit was utterly at variance with Savonarola's conception of spirituality and Christian morality. To the adherents of the Medici therefore, Savonarola early became an object of suspicion but till the death of Lorenzo in 1492, his relations with the Church were at least not antagonistic and when, in 1493, a reform of the Dominican order in Tuscany was proposed under his auspices, it was approved by the pope, and Savonarola was named the first vicar-general.

His followers accepted not only his program of religious reform, but also his political views concerning a democratic theocracy which proved to be his undoing. Alexander, incensed at his political and religious activities tried to destroy his popularity, bribed him with a cardinal's hat, demanded that he appear for a hearing in Rome, and forbade him to preach. He quickly defied the pope preaching it was man's duty to resist the pope when in error, appealed to a general church council against him. The forcefulness of his message made him the man of the hour among the Florentines and he virtually controlled Florence by 1492. Reached a climax in the carnival of 1497 where he had organized troops of boys and girls to tour the city, house to house, and begged the people to give up their gauds and vanities, from cosmetics to pagan books and paintings, the worldly things that turned their hearts away from true Christian living.

And soon in the great square rose a great pyramid, fifteen stories high, carnival masks, rich dresses women's ornaments, wigs, mirrors, powder puffs, rouge-pots, lip-sticks, cards and dice, perfume and cosmetics, books of poems and on magic, musical instruments, trinkets of all kinds and worldly paintings in which Greek nymphs displayed their unclothed shapes. A Venetian merchant wrung his hands, and offered twenty thousand crowns to the city government for the pile. Instead he had to fling a valuable picture he owned on top of the heap. Excesses such as this led many people to desert him. Compulsory goodness was distasteful to many. He did not know that morals could not be restored overnight and could not be forced.

But now his preaching began to point plainly to a political revolution as the divinely-ordained means for the regeneration of religion and morality, and he predicted the advent of the French under Charles VIII, whom soon after he welcomed to Florence. Soon, however, the French were compelled to leave Florence, and a republic was established, of which Savonarola became the guiding spirit, his party ("the Weepers") being completely in the ascendant.

The republic of Florence was to be a Christian commonwealth, of which God was the sole sovereign, and His Gospel the law: the most stringent enactments were made for the repression of vice and frivolity. Gambling was prohibited an the vanities of dress were restrained by sumptuary laws. Even the women flocked to the public square to fling down their costliest ornaments and Savonarola's followers made huge "bonfires of the vanities."
Meanwhile, his rigor and claim to the gift of prophecy led to his being cited in 1495 to answer a charge of heresy at Rome and on his failing to appear he was forbidden to preach. Savonarola disregarded the order, but his difficulties at home increased. The new system proved impracticable and although the conspiracy for the recall of the Medici failed, and five of the conspirators were executed, yet this very rigor hastened the reaction.

In 1497 came a sentence of excommunication from Rome; and thus precluded from administering the sacred offices, Savonarola zealously tended the sick monks during the plague. A second "bonfire of the vanities" in 1498 led to riots; and at the new elections the Medici party came into power. Savonarola was again ordered to desist from preaching, and was fiercely denounced by a Franciscan preacher, Francesco da Puglia. Dominicans and Franciscans appealed to the interposition of divine providence by the ordeal of fire. But when the trial was to have come off (April 1498) difficulties and debates arose, destroying Savonarola's prestige and producing a complete revulsion of public feeling.

He was brought to trial for falsely claiming to have seen visions, and uttered prophecies, for religious error, and for sedition. Under torture he made avowals which he afterwards withdrew. He was declared guilty and the sentence was confirmed by Rome. On May 23, 1498, Savonarola and two Dominican disciples were hanged and burned, still professing their adherence to the Church.

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