Girolamo Savonarola c. 1524

A thin, awkward, and nervous young man ascended the steps to the high pulpit. The crowd looked at their new preacher. In appearance, he was not much to see. He was of medium height, had brown hair, and was noticeably thin. His prominent nose stuck out from his face and caused some people to hide their smiles. Was this the best that Florence, Italy, could produce?

Florence was the center of art and culture. Here lived Michelangelo and other famous artists of the Renaissance. The powerful Medici family ruled this opulent city, and their palace was stunningly adorned with all that money could buy. Silks, jewels, paintings, art, theatre, and literature made this one of the preeminent cities in all of Europe.
Into this city had come a young man in the plain black robe of a Dominican friar. The young man announced his text. He was awkward in his delivery. His eyes were riveted upon his manuscript. His voice faltered. But he preached the Word of God.

The city of Florence was used to oratory, to fine metaphysical discussions on the writings of the ancients. Here, Thomas Aquinas and the scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages were revered. Humanists studied Plato and Aristotle and Cicero, and the gay and pleasure-loving populace loved oratory.

Instead they got the Bible, for beneath the black robe lay a heart that beat warmly for God’s truth. The young monk was weary of sophistry that cloaked iniquity. He had seen what went on in the monasteries, and his tender conscience trembled at the abominations that went on behind closed doors. His father’s family had disowned him, and he had given his life up to the service of God and His truth.

Slowly, steadily, the little friar in the black robe preached. Week after week, he opened his Bible and preached, not in the Latin of the ecclesiastical liturgy, but in the vernacular Italian of the streets. At first, the crowds dwindled. One Sunday, there were but 25 faithful souls that attended his preaching.

Gradually people began to come back. It was as though all of Europe was awakening. While the powerful families like the Medicis regaled themselves in their splendor, the middle classes were thirsty for truth. The reigning pope had come to the triple crown by a parade of sins: fornication, simony, and nepotism. Harlots were as common in Rome as were priests. Billowing clouds of sweet incense disguised the reeking stench of moral corruption. Rich vestments covered lustful hearts and gluttonous appetites. Candles were lit in vain to hide the thickening darkness. The common people were growing weary of the hypocrisy and corruption all around them.

Savonarola preaching

The preaching of the black-clad friar gradually became more and more pointed, more and more keen. In his Bible he found that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” He found that his Lord had rebuked the ungodly religious leaders of His day who had turned the Temple of God into a den of thieves.

Like Christ, this young friar saw whited sepulchers, but he knew that within were dead men’s bones. Wherever he saw error, he preached against it. Some of his statements were so pointed that they became startling. One day, looking out at the fancy dresses, plaited hair, and painted faces of the ladies of his congregation, he said, “Ye women, who glory in your ornaments, your hair, your hands, I tell you, you are all ugly.” To the astonished ladies, the ugly monk with the prominent nose described true inner beauty, the “meek and quiet spirit” which is in the sight of God of great price.

Fixing his eyes upon the humanists who boasted of their learning, he said, “A simple old woman knows more of the truth than Plato.” Of the Renaissance paintings, he said, “your art is an idolatry of heathen gods, or a shameless display of naked men and women.” Of bishops and cardinals, he cried, “O Lord! Arise and deliver us from the hands of devils, from the hands of tyrants, from the hands of iniquitous prelates.”

Savonarola Preaching

The results were astounding. In their secret chambers, young ladies with tear-streaked faces and pounding hearts discarded their fashionable garb and wore simple and modest dresses. Learned men gathered their books of Platonic philosophy and exchanged them for Bibles. The crowds swelled. As with Jesus of Nazareth, the common people heard him gladly. This young friar was saying truthful things that they had long suspected, but were too timid to say.
The cathedral of San Marco was, before long, filled with 12,000 men, women, and children hanging upon every word spoken by their earnest preacher. Large fires were kindled in the streets of Florence called “Bonfires of Vanities.” Into these blazing fires were thrown lewd and idolatrous paintings, immodest garments, gambling dice, lascivious poetry, humanistic literature, and Platonic books.

The powerful preaching of the black friar had not gone unnoticed, and the priests and powerful nobles resented the insolent monk who rebuked their sins. Lorenzo de Medici, one of the most wealthy men in Europe, sent the earnest preacher a large gift of money and fine flatteries for his oratory, with a request that he dull the sharp edge of his preaching. The little man in the black robe replied, “A faithful dog does not leave off barking in his master’s defense because a bone is thrown to him.”

Gifts would not silence him. Threats would not silence him. Excommunication would not silence him. All Europe took notice when the worst pope in history issued a papal bull to silence the best monk. Scorning the papal bull, the black friar announced to his astonished congregation,

I hereby testify that this Alexander is no pope, nor can he be held as one; inasmuch as leaving aside the mortal sin of simony, by which he purchased the papal chair, and daily sells benefices of the Church to the highest bidder, and likewise putting aside his other manifest vices, I declare that he is no Christian, and believes in no God.

All of Europe trembled to its foundation when a friar announced that the pope of Rome was no Christian. Like John the Baptist, this friar clad in a black garment had spoken the truth. Also, like John, this friar would seal the truth with his blood.

Savonarola’s Execution

In 1498, on the brink of the Reformation, the friar ascended a rough scaffold. In a solemn voice, the prelate read the sentence of excommunication and the defrocking of the heretic. The little man with the prominent nose was shaved and defrocked, and stood now clad in only a simple white tunic.

As the hooded executioner advanced to perform his office, the pope’s man slowly said, “I separate thee from the church militant and triumphant.” The little friar said his last words on earth, “You have no power to separate me from the church triumphant to which I go.” The order was given. The little man was shoved from the platform, and his neck broke with an audible crack. The worst pope had just killed the best monk.

But the church triumphant had gained another martyr to the truth. Within one generation, the truth preached by this friar would be embraced by half of Europe. In Germany, a young man named Martin Luther was studying law. In France, a princess named Marguerite had recently been born. In Switzerland, a young shepherd boy named Ulrich Zwingli was memorizing the New Testament. The little man in a black robe had ignited a spark that would never go out.

Let it not be said that succeeding generations of Protestant Christians forget the noble courage of the Italian friar with the prominent nose. He was willing to say what no one would: that fashion was ugly, that Plato was a fool, that art was lewd, that prelates were liars, and that the pope was no Christian.

The faithful dog had indeed barked in his Master’s defense. Wherever truth is preached, wherever boldness is honored, wherever Christ is worshiped in purity, the name of Girolamo Savonarola should be remembered and loved.


Girolamo Savonarola by Douglas Bond and Douglas McComas
The History of the Reformation by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne

Florence Today