Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498): His Fall

In his sermon of January 13, 1495, Girolamo Savonarola reminded his thousands of listeners of how he had accurately prophesied the coming of Charles 8th as God’s instrument. He added that he had likewise accurately predicted the deaths of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Innocent 8th, pope, before either had died in 1492. He again promised that God would reward Florentines with great power and riches in response to their religious and political reforms as long as these continued. In a sermon on April 1, Girolamo told his listeners that the Virgin Mary herself, in a vision, had assured him of God’s promises and continuing protection.

Girolamo expanded his movement of reform to include the prohibition of homosexual intercourse, adultery, wearing jewelry and fancy clothes, and being drunk in public. Soon bands of youth committed to Girolamo began to wander the streets and to physically attack those they found, both men and women, who failed to conform with the new morality. Beginning in 1496 Girolamo also organized “Bonfires of the Vanities”: annual public burnings of objects, including books, which were considered morally harmful. One such burning even consumed paintings by Sandro Botticelli.

Rodrigo Borgia took the name Alexander 6th when he became pope in 1492. He remained pope until his death in 1503. He laughed when he first read Girolamo’s criticism of his corruption and that of the Church under his leadership. Charles 8th, king of France, however, was not his spiritual enemy but a political one. So he chose not tolerate Girolamo’s political alliance with Charles against him.

In September 1495 Alexander ordered Girolamo to stop preaching. Girolamo continued to preach with angrier words against Alexander, his own enemies in Florence, and conventional Christians who refused to actively take his side. In May 1497 Alexander excommunicated Girolamo. To excommunicate means to throw out of the Church and to condemn to Hell. Alexander threatened to do the same to every inhabitant of Florence if they did not bring Girolamo to Rome.

By March 1498, the rulers of Florence persuaded Girolamo to stop preaching. In response, he wrote The Triumph of the Cross, a book about the victory of Jesus over sin and death and how people might witness to it by loving others.

Girolamo’s claim to be a prophet of God was flatly denied by a Franciscan preacher. The Franciscan challenged Girolamo to a trial by fire: both would walk through flames. The one protected by God, and emerging from the flames unharmed, would be the one shown by God himself to be speaking the truth. Without asking his permission, Girolamo’s friend and fellow monk, Domenico, accepted the challenge and volunteered to walk in Girolamo’s place. The public spectacle was set to take place on April 7, 1498.

The day came, thousands gathered, but all got soaked by a sudden rainstorm. Florentine leaders then cancelled the test. Disappointed inhabitants decided Girolamo was an imposter, attacked the Monastery of San Marco, and took him prisoner along with his dear friend Domenico and another monk.

Under torture, Girolamo confessed to making up his prophecies but later asserted that they were true. After further torture, he again said his prophecies were false. For his own consolation, he wrote reflections on Psalms 51 and 31 at this time.

A court of political and religious leaders found Girolamo and his two associates guilty as heretics (false believers) and schismatics (dividers of the one true Church) and sentenced them to death. On May 23, 1498, the three were hanged, their bodies burned, and their ashes scattered in the Arno River.

Girolamo’s followers collected and preserved his writings. His enemies the Medicis returned to power in 1512 and, in 1531, were made hereditary dukes of Florence.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.