Girolamo Savonarola: A “Faithful Dog Barking” for the Master

5 min

The thin young man nervously ascended the steps to the high pulpit. The congregation looked upward to view their new preacher. In appearance, Girolamo Savonarola was not much to look at. He was of medium height, had brown hair, and was noticeably thin. His prominent nose protruded from his face and, upon seeing it, some people quickly tried to hide their smiles. 

Savonarola, now positioned in the pulpit overlooking the congregation, announced his text. His eyes riveted upon his manuscript, he clumsily delivered his sermon. His voice faltered. But Savonarola preached the Word of God. Was this awkward young preacher the best that Florence, Italy, could produce? Florence was a 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, theater, and literature made this one of the preeminent cities in all of Europe. Into this city Savonarola had arrived in the plain black robe of a Dominican friar.

The city of Florence often entertained oratory and fine metaphysical discussions on the writings of the ancients. Here in this city, Thomas Aquinas and the scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages were revered. Humanists studied Plato and Aristotle and Cicero, and the pleasure-loving populace adored and welcomed oratory. However, from Savonarola, they instead got the Bible, for beneath the Dominican black robe lay a heart that beat warmly for God’s truth. Savonarola’s father’s family had disowned him because of his changed heart, and he had forsaken all to dedicate his life to the service of God and His truth. The young friar had seen what occurred in the monasteries, and his tender conscience trembled at the abominations that happened behind closed doors. Week after week, Savonarola faithfully opened his Bible and preached, not in the Latin of the ecclesiastical liturgy, but in the vernacular Italian of the streets. At first, the congregation dwindled. One Sunday, there were only twenty-five faithful souls that attended to hear his message from God’s Word.

Eventually, gradually, people began to come back to hear him. It was as though the European continent was awakening. While the powerful families, such as the Medicis, regaled themselves in their splendor, the middle classes were thirsty for truth. At this time, the reigning pope had come to the papal tiara—a literal triple crown—by a parade of sins: fornication, simony (the buying of church office), and nepotism (the awarding church office to family members). 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 dressed simply in the black robe of his monastic order, and he was often referred to as a “black friar.” Like that of John the Baptist, his simple garb highlighted Savonarola’s stark message of righteousness and wickedness. Indeed, his preaching gradually became more and more pointed, more and more keen. In his Bible, Savonarola found that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). 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 the Lord Jesus, this young friar saw “whited sepulchers,” but he knew that within them were “dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).

Some of the statements the black friar made were so pointed that they were startling. One day, looking at the fancy dresses, plaited hair, and painted faces of the ladies in his congregation, Savonarola said, “Ye women, who glory in your ornaments, your hair, your hands, I tell you, you are all ugly.” To the astonished ladies, the unattractive monk with the prominent nose proceeded to describe true inner beauty: the “meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price” (I Peter 3:4).

Fixing his eyes upon the humanists who boasted of their learning, Savonarola said, “A simple old woman knows more of the truth than Plato.” Of the Renaissance paintings, he commented, “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.”

The results of his proclaiming God’s Word were astounding. In their secret chambers, young ladies with tear-streaked faces and pounding hearts discarded their fashionable garb and instead donned simple, modest clothing. Learned men took their books of Platonic philosophy and exchanged them for Bibles. The crowds swelled. As with Jesus of Nazareth, the common people heard Savonarola’s preaching gladly. Before long, the cathedral of San Marco was filled with 12,000 men, women, and children—each one hanging upon every word spoken by their earnest preacher. Kindled in the streets of Florence were large fires called “bonfires of the vanities.” Into these blazing fires were thrown lewd and idolatrous paintings, immodest garments, gambling dice and playing cards, books of divination and astrology, lascivious poetry, and humanistic literature.

The powerful preaching of the black-robed friar had not gone unnoticed, and the priests and powerful nobles resented the insolent preacher who rebuked their sins. Lorenzo de Medici, one of the most wealthy men in Europe, sent the bold proclaimer a large gift of money and fine flattery for his oratory, with a request that he dull the sharp edge of his preaching. Savonarola 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 Savonarola. Neither would threats silence him. Nor would excommunication silence him. All Europe took notice when the worst pope in history—Alexander VI—issued a papal bull (public decree) to silence Girolamo Savonarola, 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 and did not even believe in God! Like John the Baptist, Savonarola had spoken the truth. Also, like John, he would seal the truth with his blood. On the morning of May 23, 1498, Savonarola ascended a rough scaffold. In a solemn voice, the prelate read the sentence of excommunication and the defrocking of the heretic. Savonarola stood at the sentencing, shaven and clad only in a simple, white tunic.

As the hooded executioner advanced to perform his office, the pope’s spokesman slowly said, “I separate thee from the church militant and triumphant.” Savonarola then spoke 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 friar was shoved from the platform, and his neck snapped with an audible crack. One of the worst popes had just killed one of the best monks.

The Church triumphant had gained another martyr to the truth, and the Protestant Reformation was soon to dawn. Savonarola was willing to say what no one would: that fashion was ugly; that Plato was a fool; that many impressive pieces of art were lewd; that prelates were liars; and that the pope was not a Christian. Savonarola, the faithful dog, had indeed barked in his Master’s name. Wherever truth is preached, the name of Girolamo Savonarola should be remembered and appreciated. 

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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