Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
Bookmark and Share

Savonarola: "Prophetic" Preacher and Moral Reformer

Martyn McGeown



I. Introduction
II. Savonarola’s Prophetic Preaching
III. Savonarola’s Moral Reforms
IV. Savonarola Versus the Pope
V. Savonarola’s Demise
VI. Savonarola’s Doctrine
VII. Conclusion


I. Introduction

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) was an Italian Dominican monk who brought moral reformation to Renaissance Florence at the end of the fifteenth century. His powerful preaching and claims to prophetic gifts brought him into conflict with Pope Alexander VI, which ended in Savonarola’s execution as a schismatic and a heretic on 23 May, 1498. This paper shall examine Savonarola’s conflict with the pope and the factors leading to his death, and investigate the claim that Savonarola was a pre-Reformer; that is, someone who paved the way for that great work of Christ, the sixteenth-century Reformation which began just decades after Savonarola’s death.

Savonarola was a child of the late Middle Ages, when the corruption of the Romish church, both morally and doctrinally, had reached a very advanced stage. Christ’s beloved church desperately needed to be delivered from the cesspool of iniquity and, more importantly, the church urgently needed to recover the gospel of grace, which had been obscured by the widespread semi-Pelagian heresy of works righteousness and human merit. The church of the Middle Ages had degenerated to such a level that true preaching was almost impossible to find, the sacraments were horribly corrupted, and the only church discipline that was practised was the cruelty of the Inquisition, as those who rebuked the church for her errors in doctrine and life were persecuted as heretics. Savonarola, as we shall see, differed from the true pre-Reformers, Wycliffe (c. 1320-1384) and Hus (c. 1369-1415) who had sought to bring doctrinal reform. Savonarola lived and died a Roman Catholic monk; he did not criticize the doctrinal errors of the Romish church. For this reason, the thesis of this paper is that Savonarola was not a pre-Reformer.

It would be helpful to place Savonarola in historical context. Jan Hus had been burned at the stake at the Council of Constance in 1415, thirty-seven years before Savonarola’s birth. That council (1414-1418) had ended the great papal schism which had torn Western Christendom apart from 1378 to 1417. During that period there were two popes, each elected by a different group of cardinals, each claiming to be the true Vicar of Christ on earth, one seated in Rome and the other in Avignon, France. Neither of the men would step down for the sake of peace and unity. Both hurled anathemas at one another, while various nations in Europe allied themselves with the pope of their choice as political factors might dictate. At one point, after the Council of Pisa (1409), there were three rival popes! The papal schism shows the folly of Romish claims that there is an unbroken succession of popes from Peter. The Romish church was still smarting from this when Savonarola, as we shall see, threatened her peace. In 1460, seven years after Savonarola’s birth, pope Pius II issued his bull, Execrabilis, which forbade any Roman Catholic to appeal to a general council. Yet, this is exactly what Savonarola would attempt to do in a desperate attempt to bring moral reform to a degenerate ecclesiastical structure.


II. Savonarola’s Prophetic Preaching

Savonarola, thoroughly disgusted with the world, became a monk in 1475 without even consulting his parents. Although he had desired to "be employed in the humblest and most menial duties of the brotherhood," he soon showed a "marked ability which led to his appointment as instructor of the novices."1 Initially, his preaching was scorned as unsophisticated and lacking in rhetoric. As he 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.2

Savonarola’s preaching took on a different form when he used his pulpit to utter prophecies. He predicted that God would send a scourge upon His church to purify it: "The church will be reformed, but Italy will first be scourged, and her chastisement is imminent."3 The friar’s predictions seemed to be nearing fulfilment when news came to Florence in 1494 that the King of France, Charles VIII, had invaded Italy. This occurred just as Savonarola was preaching from the text, "Behold I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth" (Gen. 6:17). This coincidence only enhanced his reputation.

Savonarola hailed Charles a "new Cyrus," who would be God’s instrument to purge His people. "This was the scourge he had been prophesying, the scourge which would come upon Italy and the church; upon Italy to punish the princes and the people for their sins; upon the church, to punish and regenerate."4 When the King arrived in Pisa, the Florentine authorities asked Savonarola to meet him and negotiate peaceful terms for the city of Florence. Savonarola addressed the King with these words, "At last you have come, O King. You have come as God’s minister, the minister of His justice. With joyful heart and cheerful countenance we welcome you."5 Charles was a very unlikely "scourge" and proved to be nothing of the kind. Erlanger describes the king: "he could barely sign his name … a slavering little monarch … dim-witted and misshapen little prince."6 Daniel-Rops agrees: "By a remarkable aberration of his prophetic foresight, Savonarola recognized the puny Charles VIII as the long-awaited messenger of God."7 Crawford describes Charles this way: "He had almost no education – hardly knew the alphabet, was physically deformed, and seems to have been almost utterly devoid of judgment. But he was eager to rule and ambitious to immortalize his name."8 De la Bedoyere adds, "The King of France re-entered his country less than a year after his useless invasion had begun. As the scourge of God and the renewer of His church, prophesied by Savonarola, Charles VIII could hardly have failed more abjectly."9 Charles did nothing to reform the church despite repeated attempts, including warnings of divine judgment, from Savonarola to encourage him in his duty. Ironically, Charles died on a dung heap the same day that Savonarola’s credibility was forever ruined in the "Ordeal of Fire."10


III. Savonarola’s Moral Reforms

The moral corruption in Renaissance Italy was the reason Savonarola cited for the coming judgment of God. The only solution was a radical break with sin. There is no doubt that Savonarola’s preaching had a profound effect on the outward morals of the city. For a while, when the friar’s influence was at its height, he succeeded in forming a theocracy where Jesus was declared King. Strict laws were introduced which forbade gross vices such as sodomy (a sin practiced widely in Florence), and made gambling, dancing and all forms of indecent behaviour virtually disappear from the city, at least in public. 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.11

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.12

Savonarola succeeded in recruiting the youth in his reform movement. He was able to transform the traditional carnival by "Christianizing its semi-paganism." "Let there be jollifications, but so purposefully organised that the happy people would sing and dance the praises of God and be a judgment on the sin provoked by the immodesties of a pagan tradition."13 In this new religious festival, the young people played a leading role. In 1497, at carnival time, Savonarola had the boys go around the city and ask for "vanities" (anything considered to be indecent, whether pictures, books, or clothing) which they gathered in the city square to be burned. Under the friar’s supervision, the children became a kind of moral police.

The children had received such encouragement from Fra Girolamo to reprove unbecoming modes of dress and the vice of gambling, that when the people said, ‘Here come the prior’s children,’ every gambler, however bold he might be, would take himself off, and women attired themselves with all modesty. The children were held in such reverence that everyone abstained from scandalous vice.14

The moral reforms were short-lived. Because there was not true regeneration, moral living could not last. It was obvious that Savonarola himself was a restraint on the public immorality. Once he was silenced the people went back to their old ways. Van Paassen writes, "the tide of … public immorality rose higher with every passing month that Savonarola’s voice was hushed" and "the restraining hand of Savonarola having been removed, the moral condition of Florence sank."15 The novelty of the friar soon wore off.

The Florentines revelled 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.16

Savonarola had just breathed his last when it is reported that one shouted from the crowd of spectators, "Praise be to God, now we can practice sodomy!"17 Van Paassen adds that the day following the friar’s death "the populace indulged in orgies lewd and obscene."18


IV. Savonarola Versus the Pope

Savonarola did not simply direct his denunciations at the people of Florence. He attacked the corruption in the church at its head, the clergy, the hierarchy and the pope himself. Rodrigo Borgia, whose papal name was Alexander VI, became pope in 1492. It was widely believed that he influenced the election in his favour by simony, although one author doubts this claim.19 Protestant and Roman Catholic historians both agree that Alexander VI was a less than saintly pope. "His eleven-year pontificate was to be the most deplorable in the whole history of Christianity: with Alexander VI, Borgia, the Church sank to her lowest depths of degradation," writes Daniel-Rops.20 The French Roman Catholic historian adds that Alexander was "most culpable in the field of morals … [he had] love affairs with several … women … the presence of [his] large family, all the offspring of illicit passion, around St. Peter’s successor gave rise to considerable scandal."21 De la Bedoyere writes of the pope, "he was not, we believe, a monster nor a man of unbridled licentiousness."22 Daniel-Rops disagrees, writing that the pope had "a hedonistic temperament which was incapable of resisting temptation of any kind."23 However one wants to play down or accentuate the pope’s moral foibles, he certainly cannot be considered to have displayed the "blamelessness" required of an office-bearer (I Tim. 3:10; Titus 1:7) and it is therefore not surprising that Alexander attracted sharp criticism from the pulpit of Florence.

When news of a strange prophetic preacher stirring up Florence reached Alexander, he was initially intrigued and desired to hear the friar for himself. Savonarola excused himself from appearing in Rome on the grounds of ill health. "There is not," writes Van Paassen, "the slightest indication of ill will or suspicion on the part of Alexander towards Savonarola in the first years of the new pontificate."24 The pope really did not mind the friar’s diatribe against immorality, "so long as Savonarola thundered against luxury and immorality Alexander deemed him harmless."25 There were many moral preachers throughout Christendom fulminating against clerical abuses, and the pope knew the rumours with which his moral lifestyle was associated. What made Savonarola different was his claim to prophetic insights. More alarming to the pope was Savonarola’s connecting the coming scourge with the King of France. Alexander, like many of the medieval popes, feared any threat to his power. Moral corruption, even doctrinal aberration, did not concern him so much, as long as the authority of the church, his own authority, was not questioned. The real issue for Alexander was political. Savonarola’s stirring up the Florentines to believe that the French were their allies prevented Florence joining the "Holy League." This alliance, consisting of the pope, the emperor, the King of Spain, the Republic of Venice and the Duke of Milan, was organized to defend Italy against the Turks and protect the rights of the pope. Its immediate purpose was to drive the French out of Italy.26 Florence refused to join the League because they needed the help of a foreign power, France to prevent the return of the Medici, who had been despots in the city for many generations. Having established a republic owing largely to Savonarola’s influence, they intended to maintain it, even if this meant opposing the political ambitions of the pope. "[Alexander] continued to find the city intractable owing, as he believed, to the ascendancy of Savonarola in the city."27

In July 1495 Alexander wrote to the friar summoning him to appear in Rome to give an account of his prophecies. The papal brief was cordial, "to our well-beloved son, greeting and the apostolic benediction …"28 Whether Savonarola declined the invitation because he suspected that the pope wanted to cast doubt upon his prophecies,29 or because he guessed that such an invitation would result in his imprisonment or death in Rome,30 or for some other reason, he declined to go, excusing himself on the grounds of ill-health and explaining to the pope that his presence was necessary in Florence to oversee the moral reforms which God had granted in the city.

Alexander’s next brief (September, 1495) was less cordial. It was addressed to the neighbouring monastery of a rival order, the Franciscans, and it referred to "a certain Fra Hieronymo of Ferrara [who] … has been led by the disturbed condition of affairs in Italy to such a pitch of folly as to declare that he has been sent by God and that he holds converse with him."31 The pope commanded the reunification of Savonarola’s San Marco monastery with the congregation of Lombard. In this way Savonarola would "no longer be a provincial but simply one prior among sixteen, subject to the close supervision of a vicar general, who could transfer him to another convent at any time."32 Savonarola knew that his reforms would be endangered if he no longer had control over the monastery in Florence. Therefore he appealed directly to the pope, lamenting that Alexander had been induced to believe his opponents who were trying to undo the Lord’s work. The pope ignored Savonarola’s appeals and Savonarola, on his part, disregarded the pope’s demands that he not preach. The pope could not longer tolerate such defiance of his authority and on 13 May, 1497, he issued the edict of excommunication. The reasons for his excommunication were given:

He has disseminated pernicious doctrines to the scandal and great grief of simple souls. We had already commanded him, by virtue of his vows of holy obedience, to suspend his sermons; but he refused to obey, and alleged various excuses which we too graciously accepted, hoping to convert him by our clemency … he has persisted in his stubbornness and thus, ipso facto, incurs our censure … he is an excommunicated person and suspected of heresy.33

Just as the edict was reaching Florence, disaster struck Alexander’s family which many of Savonarola’s supporters viewed as a judgment of God upon the wicked pontiff. In June, 1497, Alexander’s favourite son, Juan, the Duke of Gandia was murdered and his body recovered from the River Tiber. Savonarola, moved by pity, wrote to the pope to comfort him. De la Bedoyere describes the scene,

The severe, ascetic Prophet of Florence, who, overcoming his feelings for an unworthy Pontiff of the Church, remembered the man, and wrote to him: ‘Faith, most holy Father, is the one and true source of peace and consolation for the heart of man. Let your Holiness respond to this call and you will see how quickly sadness is turned into joy. All other consolation is trivial and deceitful. Faith alone brings consolation from a far-off country. Let your Holiness then forward the work of faith for which I labour even unto bonds and do not give ear to the wicked. These things I have written to you under the prompting of charity and in all humility, desiring that your Holiness may find in God that true comfort which does not deceive. May He console you in your distress.’ Shaken by the murder of his son, Alexander was for a moment able to rise to the Friar’s appeal. The sinner in his grief and punishment raised his hands to touch, however fleetingly, the robe of the saint.34

Alexander’s grief was so intense, that for a while he considered reforming his ways and the ways of the church. But such resolve was short lived. "Alexander," explains de la Bedoyere, "was totally incapable of the resistance and perseverance necessary to carry through the thoroughgoing reform of the church which in a moment of spiritual anguish he could set in motion."35 In addition, a few hours after reading Savonarola’s sympathies the pope’s anger was rekindled. He spoke of the letter as

a piece of contemptible insolence. He had been insulted, he averred, in his dignity as Vicar of Christ. The particular sentence in the Friar’s missive which aroused his resentment most was the reference to God’s willingness to ‘pass over all our sins.’ The pope now saw in this sentence an allusion to his own past misdeeds.36

Savonarola initially obeyed the order of excommunication and desisted from preaching. Between May 1497 and February 1498 he was silent. The longer he remained out of his pulpit the worse the morals of the people became. Therefore Savonarola was asked by the authorities to re-enter the pulpit to stem the tide of wickedness that threatened the city once again. On 11 February 1498 he challenged the validity of his own excommunication and attacked the authority of the pope: one who issues commands against charity is not to be obeyed; the pope in issuing the decree of excommunication is not acting on Christ’s authority. "The pope, unless he be guided as an instrument of a superior agent, ‘is no better than you are yourselves;’ he can exercise no power because he is moved by no guiding hand; he is ‘a broken tool.’"37 The excommunication "stands out in contrast with the good life and therefore proceeds from the devil."38

It is this defiance of papal authority that occasions the criticism of Roman Catholic authors. No matter how wicked Alexander may have been, no matter how corrupt the church was in its clergy and hierarchy, no man has the liberty to impugn the office of the papacy. De la Bedoyere is particularly scandalized by the fact that Savonarola bypassed the pope to await "the commands of One who was superior to the pope and to all creatures."39 To "defy the visible church" was "of all his actions the hardest to defend."40 "The Friar was certainly entitled to point to the corruption of morals, even at the papal court and in regard to the person of the Holy Father himself, but not to deny his authority."41 Daniel-Rops agrees, "In his repeated attacks upon Rome, the Dominican was distinguishing less and less between Alexander the man and Alexander the pope, and his assault on the Borgia was thus becoming an assault on the Vicar of Christ Himself."42 Parker writes,

In the straightforward clash between the two men, it can with fairness be claimed that Savonarola provoked the pope beyond reasonable limits … Savonarola stepped beyond orthodox bounds, and dangerously so, in defining obedience and the place of individual judgment to show whether or not any authority in the Church should be accepted … Every individual has the right to resist a corrupt order, to appeal in the last resort to Christ Himself, and in claiming this, Savonarola was no less radical than Wycliffe or Hus before him, or Luther afterward.43

Savonarola had one more card to play. Charles VIII had failed to bring the required reform and as long as that corrupt pope sat on St. Peter’s chair there could be no improvement in the morals of the church. In February, 1498, the excommunicated friar addressed personal letters to the sovereigns of Spain, England, Hungary, Germany and France, urging them to call a general council to depose the pope who had shown himself an unworthy leader of Christendom.

The Church is teeming with abominations from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet. Yet, not only do you apply no remedy, but you do homage to the cause of the woes by which she is defiled … Now I testify, God being my witness, that this Alexander is no pope, nor can he be held as one. Leaving aside the mortal sin of simony by which he obtained the papal chair and daily sells the benefices of the Church to the highest bidder, and also leaving aside his other evident vices, I declare solemnly that he is no Christian and believes in no God. Infidelity can go no further.44

This was an act of desperation and extremely dangerous, yet Savonarola acted out of love for the church. Remember the bull Execrabilis of 1460, almost forty years before this when Pope Pius II had forbidden all such appeals to councils. Here are some of the words from that papal bull:

… an execrable and in former ages unheard-of abuse has sprung up in our time, namely that some people, imbued with the spirit of rebellion, presume to appeal to a future Council from the Roman Pontiff … we enjoin that nobody dares under whatever pretext to make an appeal from any of our ordinances, sentences or commands and from those of our successors … if any one, of whatever status, rank, order or condition … shall contravene this … he shall ipso facto incur sentence of anathema, from which he cannot be absolved except by the Roman Pontiff and at the point of death … Therefore, it is not allowed to any man to infringe or to oppose by audacious perversion this charter of our will, by which we have condemned, reproved, quashed, annulled, decreed, declared and ordered the aforesaid. If any one, however, shall so attempt, let him know that he shall incur the indignation of Almighty God and of Saint Peter and Paul, His Apostles.45

De la Bedoyere calls Savonarola’s actions "hysterical."46 Certainly, they were dangerous. Unfortunately for Savonarola, none of his letters reached their destination and several were sent to the pope himself! Now the pope had proof of the friar’s treason. The rift between Alexander and Savonarola was irreparable.


V. Savonarola’s Demise

The excommunication from the pope was not the cause of Savonarola’s downfall. Nor was his open act of treason against St. Peter’s unworthy successor. As long as he enjoyed the support of the populace and the protection of the Florentine authorities, who valued him as an influence for good in the city, the friar was relatively safe. The Florentines did, however, begin to waver when threatened by a papal interdict that would have brought ruin to the city. They therefore sent ambassadors to Rome to try to appease the pope and convince him of the friar’s virtues. Savonarola suddenly fell from grace in the fiasco known as "the ordeal of fire."

Savonarola’s enemies needed some way to discredit him in the eyes of the people who considered him a prophet of God. The opportunity came when the rival Franciscans, jealous of Savonarola’s popularity, challenged the Dominicans to prove the authenticity of Savonarola’s message by an "ordeal of fire." Such ordeals were part of the popular superstition of the period. It was believed that God would authenticate a man’s message by supernatural means. Opponents in a dispute would perform a dangerous feat and God was expected to protect the man He favoured. In this case, if God was behind Savonarola’s message, Savonarola ought to be able to walk through fire without being burned. To Savonarola’s dismay and the Franciscans’ surprise, Fra Domenico, probably his most enthusiastic supporter, accepted the challenge. The arrangements were made for the event which drew a large and excited crowd. The challengers never entered the fire, not for any lack of enthusiasm on Fra Domenico’s part, but because the Franciscans repeatedly delayed the proceedings. First, they suggested that Fra Domenico’s clothes were bewitched; then, that his crucifix was enchanted; and, finally, they objected to Fra Domenico carrying the host through the flames.47 The restless crowd finally lost their patience, especially as a sudden downpour left them soaking wet. They had come to see a miracle and Savonarola had failed to deliver. Van Paassen lays the blame for this turn of events on Savonarola himself. "He had frequently declared that his words would be confirmed by supernatural evidence. And so the people were taking him at his word."48 The whole episode, he adds, is evidence that a whole nation "may suddenly go stark mad."49

Madness or not, the events that day were disastrous for Savonarola. Immediately, the spell was broken. The friar was now considered a fraud. The next day, an enraged mob attacked the monastery where Savonarola lived. The authorities took advantage of the situation to arrest him and his two close friends, Fra Domenico and Fra Silvestro, who would die with him. The pope, as soon as he heard of the friars’ arrest, "wrote to express his delight at the measures Florence had taken to ‘repress the mad folly of that son of iniquity’ … leave was then granted to examine the Friar etiam per torturam."50 This was necessary because clergy could not be tried (and certainly not tortured) in a secular court without papal approval.

The trial lasted for weeks and torture was used regularly on all three friars. At the end of the cruel proceedings Savonarola was "an inert bag of bones and crushed flesh."51 The pope sent Gioacchino Torriano, the director general of the Dominican order, and Francesco Remolines, bishop of Ilerda and auditor of the governor of Rome, to examine him. They were especially interested in interrogating him concerning his plans for a general council. From these men, especially Remolines, Savonarola could not expect a fair trial. "We shall make a good bonfire; I have the verdict already here in my bosom," Remolines exclaimed as he arrived. To make the "holy" bishop comfortable "a beautiful girl dressed as a boy" was provided for his entertainment at night!52

Savonarola was convicted of conspiracy to bring about schism in church and state (a reference to his attempt to overthrow Alexander VI by a general council), promulgating erroneous teachings (heresy) and despising the authority of the papal chair.53 As such, he and his colleagues were sentenced to be hanged and then their bodies burned. A large crowd gathered to witness the death of Florence’s "prophet." The three friars were stripped of their ecclesiastical privileges in a ceremony called degradation that lasted over two hours.54 Towards the end of the ceremony, the presiding bishop, stumbling over his words, misspoke himself, "I separate you from the church militant and the church triumphant." Savonarola corrected him, "Only from the church militant; the other is not your affair."55 The three friars faced their death with dignity and without fear. One anomaly needs to be mentioned. Despite the fact that the three friars were condemned as heretics and were supposedly being punished accordingly, the pope gave them full absolution on the scaffold so they would not have to suffer any time in purgatory.56 Surely a curious way to treat a condemned heretic!


VI. Savonarola’s Doctrine

In many ways Savonarola was a typical medieval Roman Catholic. Several authors testify to his orthodoxy according to Roman Catholic standards. Even the cardinals who were confidants of the pope assured Alexander that Savonarola was "a passionate, sincere, learned champion of the faith and no heretic."57 Shortly after the friar’s death, Erlanger reports, the papal envoy tried to find heresy in Savonarola’s writings: "To the envoy’s mortification nothing heretical was found in any of the works."58

Most historians, in particular Roman Catholic historians, agree that Savonarola was a devout and faithful child of Rome. Horsburgh writes, "in spite of isolated incidents and isolated passages, the allegiance of Savonarola to Catholic doctrine and to the Roman supremacy cannot be challenged."59 Van Paassen argues that the friar "could be called one of the trailblazers of the Council of Trent where the church did reform herself from within and with her own machinery … Savonarola … never ceased to subscribe to the church’s articles of faith and the teachings of the Fathers."60 Sheldon writes, "We find with him no distinct anticipation of the Protestant creed. He accepted the whole list of Roman Catholic dogmas which claimed general assent at the time."61 Daniel-Rops agrees, "His doctrine has never been questioned and his treatise, The Triumph of Christ, was fashionable in seminaries for many years to come, even after the Council of Trent."62 Old concurs, "While one sometimes like to paint Savonarola as a Protestant before his time, a sort of John the Baptist of the Reformation, he is better understood as a very devout Catholic."63 Jesuit, John Patrick Donnelly writes in his introduction to Savonarola’s Prison Meditations,

Savonarola’s overall teaching on grace and justification follows that of Thomas Aquinas. I would add that fact that the prison mediations were repeatedly published in Catholic cities during the Counter-Reformation, where they would not have passed the censorship of the inquisitors if they contained a fully Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, especially since they were written by a friar executed for heresy.64

However, there is also the interesting fact that pope Paul IV wanted Savonarola’s books placed on the Index of Forbidden books, calling him "another Luther."65

There is some connection between the Florentine friar and the Reformation, although doctrinally there was not much agreement. Luther spoke highly of Savonarola. He "valued Savonarola’s [prison] meditations so much that he published them twice."66 He called him "a holy man" and added, "Christ canonizes him."67 Elsewhere Luther writes that the friar was "a godly man of Florence," whom the pope had persecuted.68 According to another Roman Catholic historian, "Luther had no hesitation in claiming [Savonarola] as a proto-martyr of the Reformation."69 Rachel Erlanger, who is generally unsympathetic towards Savonarola draws the following comparison between the friar and Luther:

Like Luther, he declared that a pope could err, and emphasized the superior authority of Scripture. Like Luther, he wished to summon a council and was excommunicated by the pope. But when the Imperial Diet of Worms called on Luther to recant, he replied he could not and would not recant … Savonarola, by contrast, seemed incapable of taking a firm stand on anything.70

That is hardly a fair assessment of a man who endured torture and met his death with courage.

From Savonarola’s writings, we can glean his basic teachings. The friar believed in the primacy of Peter: "Although Christ is in heaven as the true and sole head of the church, he has left St. Peter as his representative on earth … all the faithful should be united under the pope as the supreme head of the Catholic Church, the mother of all other churches."71 Savonarola confessed Rome’s Marian beliefs. He believed in Mary’s immaculate conception: "The Virgin could not sin … because of the great abundance of the Holy Spirit that filled her, and thus she was confirmed so that she could not sin."72 He believed that Mary is highly exalted above all creatures: "The Virgin is not only lady and queen of a land, but of all the angelic creatures, both earthly and infernal."73 He confessed her perpetual virginity: "the Mother generated Him in time, a virgin before, during, and after the birth."74 He trusted in her intercession: "we therefore have recourse to her as to someone who is most merciful, for she has given birth to the fount of pity."75 In addition, he advocated prayers to the saints, especially to the founder of his order, St. Dominic.76 None of this is surprising in a medieval monk. Nevertheless, Eisenbichler cautions us not to "overestimate Savonarola’s devotion to the Virgin Mary" and fail to see that the friar’s preaching is essentially biblical and Christocentric."77 Nor ought it escape our notice that, when Savonarola was faced with death, he does not appear to have appealed to the Virgin or to the saints to help him, as becomes evident when we read his Prison Meditations in which no mention is made of such intercession. In addition, Savonarola believed in purgatory and the associated prayers for the dead: "If you do what I have told you, not only will you save yourself from Hell, but you might also save yourself from the pains of Purgatory … everyone should do something good for the dead, for they wait for our prayers."78 Some of Savonarola’s sermons contain references to freewill that would indicate a tendency toward Semi-Pelagianism:

God stirs our freewill and has given man time till death to repent and turn to God and until that time He helps him and lends him a hand. But once this time has passed, God no longer relieves him and does not help him any more. And thus, when one dies in mortal sin one remains obstinate in that sin and can no longer turn back because he is devoid of divine assistance without which one cannot release himself.79

Since salvation depends partially on man there can be no assurance. Savonarola expressed it this way, "Although no one can know for sure whether he is in the grace of God if not by revelation, nonetheless a devout person can have some idea of this and some indication of it."80

Nevertheless, despite Savonarola’s Romish doctrinal bias, there is some evidence that there was more to the friar’s preaching than this. We must remember that before the Counter-Reformation Rome had not officially and irreversibly adopted many of her modern errors although many of them were widely believed and taught. Roman Catholicism was more fluid before Trent. Savonarola’s doctrine was informed by his study of the Scriptures. Unlike many theologians of his day he did not preach from the Fathers but from Scripture and in the vernacular with the result that the people could understand him and profit from his preaching. Savonarola had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible. Crawford describes Savonarola as "an ardent student of the Bible" who "knew it almost by heart, from Genesis to Revelation."81 Old agrees: "His knowledge of Scripture was regarded as extraordinary by his contemporaries. In fact, he was said to have known much of the Bible by heart."82 This would stand him in good stead when during his last days prior to his execution, and deprived of his Bible, he wrote his Prison Meditations on Psalms 51 and 31: "references to Scripture are ubiquitous … minor slips or departures from the Vulgate suggest that Savonarola did not have a Bible at hand as he was writing and that he was quoting from memory."83 In addition, as Old points out, Savonarola grounded the authority of his preaching in the authority of Scripture itself:

Fra Girolamo wants to make it very clear that God’s Word has authority by virtue of the fact that it is God’s Word. He says to his congregation, if you ask me about the authority of my preaching, I would say this: what I say that comes from Scripture, what I say that is Gospel, has authority; when what I say comes from elsewhere, then you are not bound to believe it.84

While it would be very difficult to make a case that Savonarola was an embryonic Protestant yet we may be encouraged to find hints of evangelical doctrine in his writings.

In the first place there are places in Savonarola’s writings where he downplays human merit:

Let all the just, whether in heaven or on earth, come forward and we shall question them before you, whether they were saved by their own power. All will certainly answer with one voice … they are not saved by their own merits, not by their own works.85

When faced with death Savonarola did not appeal to his own merits or to the merits of Mary or of the saints, but to the merits of Christ Himself: "the merits of Him who always stands at thy right hand."86

By what merits will I be delivered? Not by my own merits, O Lord, but in your justice deliver me. In your justice, I say, not in my own. For I ask for mercy. I do not put forward my own justice … your grace is your justice, Lord; and grace would not be grace if it were given because of merits.87

Tell me, O Peter, tell me, O Magdalen, wherefore are you in Paradise … confess that not by thine own merits hast thou attained salvation, but by the goodness of God … this grace, these gifts, were not vouchsafed to thee for thy deserts, O Mary! but because God loved thee and willed thy salvation.88

In the second place there are occasions in his sermons where he emphasizes God’s sovereignty in bestowing salvation:

None may come unto Me, saith the Lord, unless he be brought by the Father. I can not enlighten you inwardly, I can only strike upon your ears; but what may that avail if your intellect be not enlightened nor your affections kindled?89

The Scriptures are very plain. They tell us, not in one place, but in many, that not only the end of our well-doing, but likewise its beginning, cometh to us from God. In all our good works it is God who works through us. It is therefore untrue that the grace of God is obtained by pre-existing works and merits, that through them we are predestined to everlasting life, as though works and merits were the cause of predestination. It is all the contrary, for works and merits are the effect of predestination, and the divine will the cause of predestination, as we have said before.90

Marvellous is your strength! Who will stop you, if you should want to make a just person out of a transgressor, a preacher out of a persecutor? Who can resist you?91

Yet there are other places were Savonarola advocates a universal love of God and common grace: "Does he not love everybody, he who became human for the sake of humans and was crucified for sinners?"92 "He has mercy on sinners when he rewards them with temporal goods for the good they do in time, and after this life he punishes them not as much as they deserve."93


VII. Conclusion

Savonarola is a tragic figure in the late medieval period. Deeply troubled by the miserable condition of the church, he was sincere in his efforts to reform her. Of his religious sincerity, there can be no question. Unlike many medieval monks, who were characterised by sloth, ignorance and sexual immorality, the Florentine friar was learned, industrious and chaste. Doctrinally, he was with Rome, although we have noted some favourable tendencies, especially as he faced death. Had a better pope resided in Rome, Savonarola probably would have had no quarrel with the church’s hierarchy. It certainly vexed Savonarola’s soul to have lived during the pontificate of the infamous Borgia pope.

As far as Savonarola’s prophetic gift is concerned I favour Horsburgh’s explanation:

These revelations originated with Fra Silvestro, who was of a nervous and excitable disposition, given to talking in his sleep and with a strong tendency to dreams. These dreams he communicated to Savonarola, who encouraged him to believe they were a revelation from God.94

God no longer reveals His will to men through dreams, for these former ways of revelation ended with the last of Christ’s apostles (Heb. 1:1-3). Perhaps there was in Savonarola, as Erlanger claims, a certain amount of self-deception.95 It is obvious that the friar failed the prophetic test: not everything he predicted came to pass. Schaff’s assessment is correct: "Savonarola’s prophetic gift, so-called, was nothing more than political and religious intuition."96

Savonarola’s death was a travesty, although inevitable. His only crime was defiance of papal authority. To call him a heretic is unwarranted. A much better case can be made for the claim that he was schismatic. Had he succeeded in calling a general council, something forbidden by pope Pius II in 1460, and having the pope deposed, he very likely could have plunged the church into another schism. The Romish church, uninterested in doctrinal reform, but simply in maintaining its own power, could not risk such an outcome. Therefore Savonarola had to be silenced, if papal power was to remain intact.

We can only speculate how Savonarola might have reacted to Luther, but it is more than likely that he would have opposed him as a disturber of the unity of the Roman church. There is no indication that he had any sympathy for Wycliffe or Hus, who were true pre-Reformers. The church was in desperate need of a recovery of the doctrines of the gospel, that had been buried under heresy and superstition. Although in his final days Savonarola confessed some evangelical truth, especially the repudiation of merit in his Prison Mediations, the friar did not and could not bring the kind of reform that God granted His church through Luther and Calvin. Therefore, as tempting as such a thesis might be, we cannot consider the friar to have been a trailblazer for the Reformation.


1William H. Crawford, Girolamo Savonarola: A Prophet of Righteousness (Cincinnati, OH: Jennings and Graham, 1907), p. 33.
2Konrad Eisenbichler in his "Introduction" to Girolamo Savonarola, A Guide to Righteous Living and Other Works, trans. Konrad Eisenbichler, Renaissance and Reformation Texts in Translation: 10 (Toronto, Canada: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, University of Toronto, 2003), p. 88.
3Henri Daniel-Rops, Church History, vol. 4, trans. Audrey Butler (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1961), p. 229.
4Crawford, Prophet, p. 132.
5Rachel Erlanger, The Unarmed Prophet: Savonarola in Florence (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1988), p. 100.
6Erlanger, Unarmed, pp. 100-101.
7Daniel-Rops, Church History, vol. 4, p. 231.
8Crawford, Prophet, p. 136.
9Michael de la Bedoyere, The Meddlesome Friar and the Wayward Pope: The Story of the Conflict Between Savonarola and Alexander VI (Garden City, New York: Hanover House, 1958), p. 141.
10Pierre van Paassen, A Crown of Fire: The Life and Times of Girolamo Savonarola (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), p. 283.
11Daniel-Rops, Church History, vol. 4, p. 231.
12Crawford, Prophet, p. 163.
13De la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 162.
14Crawford, Prophet, p. 200.
15Van Paassen, Crown, pp. 255, 261.
16De la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 198.
17Erlanger, Unarmed, p. 2.
18Van Paassen, Crown, p. xi.
19De la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 87. It should be noted that De la Bedoyere exerts himself to write a favourable account of Pope Alexander VI, excusing his vices as best he can. Therefore the reader may not be altogether surprised to discover at the end of the book both the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur of the Roman Catholic Church.
20Daniel-Rops, Church History, vol. 4, p. 222; italics his.
21Daniel-Rops, Church History, vol. 4, pp. 224-225.
22De la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 108.
23Daniel-Rops, Church History, vol. 4, p. 223.
24Van Paassen, Crown, p. 112.
25Van Paassen, Crown, p. 266.
26Crawford, Prophet, p. 168.
27E. H. S. Horsburgh, The Life of Savonarola (London: Methuen & Co., 1909), p. 155.
28Erlanger, Unarmed, p. 138.
29Erlanger, Unarmed, p. 139.
30Crawford, Prophet, p. 174.
31Erlanger, Unarmed, p. 142.
32Erlanger, Unarmed, p. 166.
33Van Paassen, Crown, p. 248.
34De la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 24.
35De la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 94.
36Van Paassen, Crown, p. 254.
37Horsburgh, Savonarola, p. 162.
38De la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 194.
39De la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 192.
40De la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 191.
41De la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 174; italics mine.
42Daniel-Rops, Church History, vol. 4, p. 232.
43G. H. W. Parker, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2 (Boston, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, repr. 1994), pp. 212-213.
44Van Paassen, Crown, p. 267.
45John B. Morrali & Sidney Z. Zehler (eds.), Church and State Through the Centuries (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1928), pp. 132-133.
46De la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 54.
47Roberto Ridolfi, The Life of Girolamo Savonarola, trans. Cecil Grayson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959), p. 242.
48Van Paassen, Crown, p. 276.
49Van Paassen, Crown, p. 277.
50De la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 229.
51Van Paassen, Crown, p. 243.
52Erlanger, Unarmed, p. 280.
53Horst Hermann, Savonarola: Der Ketzer von San Marco (Munich: C. Bertelsmann Verlag, 1977), p. 273. According to Parker, his crime also included "deceiving the people and inciting them to rebellion" (History, vol. 2, p. 212).
54Hermann, Savonarola, p. 269.
55Ridolfi, The Life, p. 270.
56Ridolfi, The Life, p. 270; Van Paassen, Crown, p. 312.
57Van Paassen, Crown, p. 247.
58Erlanger, Unarmed, p. 293.
59Horsburgh, Savonarola, p. 215.
60Van Paassen, Crown, p. xviii.
61Henry C. Sheldon, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2 (Boston, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, repr. 1994), p. 478.
62Daniel-Rops. Church History, vol. 4, p. 235.
63Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 568.
64"Introduction" by Donnelly in Girolamo Savonarola, Prison Meditations on Psalms 51 and 31, trans and ed. John Patrick Donnelly, S.J., Reformation Texts with Translation (1350-1650), general editor, Kenneth Hagen, Series Biblical Studies, vol. 1 (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1994), p. 28.
65"Introduction" by Donnelly in Savonarola, Prison, p. 21.
66"Introduction" by Donnelly in Savonarola, Prison, p. 18.
67"Introduction" by Donnelly in Savonarola, Prison, p. 27.
68Martin Luther, Works, vol. 32 (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1958), p. 88.
69De la Bedoyere, Meddlesome, p. 221.
70Erlanger, Unarmed, p. 298.
71Van Paassen, Crown, pp. 246-247.
72Savonarola, Guide, p. 130.
73Savonarola, Guide, p. 229.
74Savonarola, Guide, p. 234.
75Savonarola, Guide, p. 237.
76Savonarola, Guide, p. 184.
77Translator’s "Introduction" in Savonarola, Guide, p. 10.
78Savonarola, Guide, p. 141.
79Savonarola, Guide, p. 142.
80Savonarola, Guide, p. 188.
81Crawford, Prophet, p. 34.
82Old, Reading, vol. 3, p. 570.
83"Introduction" by Donnelly in Savonarola, Prison, p. 20.
84Old, Reading, vol. 3, p. 581.
85Savonarola, Prison, p. 35.
86Savonarola, Prison, p. 71.
87Savonarola, Prison, p. 105.
88Crawford, Prophet, p. 123.
89Crawford, Prophet, p. 95.
90Jim Vineyard, Great Preachers and Their Preaching: Savonarola, Revealing God’s Righteousness (Hammond, Indiana: First Baptist Church of Hammond, 1975), p. 38.
91Savonarola, Prison, p. 77.
92Savonarola, Prison, p. 101.
93Savonarola, Prison, p. 123.
94Horsburgh, Savonarola, pp. 196-197.
95Erlanger, Unarmed, p. 49.
96Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1960), p. 692.