(Professor of Church History at Oriens Theological College, Shillong)
Girolamo Savonarola was an Italian Dominican friar, preacher, and reformer, active in Renaissance Florence. Born and educated at Ferrara, he entered the Dominican Order at Bologna in 1475 but later shifted to the Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence which became the centre of his future activities. His first positions were mostly academic, but he was soon in demand as a preacher which became increasingly apocalyptic, prophesying an impending divine chastisement of the corruption of the church and society, and claiming to receive special revelations from God. “Come here, infamous church, and listen to what the Lord tells you,” he thundered. Besides advocating wide ranging reforms in the Dominican Order and even founding a new congregation according to his line of thinking, he called for radical, political, social and moral reforms in the society which finally led to the establishment of a theocratic democracy in Florence. He sought to create a Christian culture based on the Bible and Christian morality and asceticism in opposition the “pagan” culture of the Humanists. His prophecies and his extremism won him both fervent supporters and determined opponents, including the papacy. In 1495 Pope Alexander VI who rightly deserved some of the condemnations of Savonarola summoned him to Rome to give an account of himself. This was not only because Savonarola violently attacked the abuses of the papacy but because when Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, Savonarola welcomed it as a punishment of God and forced Florence to refuse to join Alexander VI’s Holy League against France. He pleaded that he was unable to leave Florence. Alexander then forbade Savonarola to preach. On the ground that the Pope was acting on false information and that it would be wrong to obey instructions contrary to the commandments of God and the church, Savonarola, after a brief silence, resumed his preaching. In 1497 Savonarola was excommunicated but he decided that the excommunication was invalid and continued to preach and to defend the authenticity of his revelation. In the same year he published an impressive apologia for orthodox Catholicism, Triumphus Crucis, which can be considered his spiritual masterpiece, a celebration of the victory of the Cross over sin and death and an exploration of what it means to be a Christian. This he summed up in the theological virtue of love. In loving their neighbour, Christians return the love which they have received from their Creator and Saviour. Despite conciliatory gestures on both sides, the conflict between Savonarola and the Pope worsened and in 1498, on the grounds that Alexander was not even a Christian and could therefore not be deemed a legitimate Pope, Savonarola wrote to the major Christian princes asking them to convoke a council. Popular opinion began to turn against him, and abandoned buy the Florentine authorities, he was arrested and condemned for schism and heresy. He was hanged and burned on 23 may 1498 together with two other friars. Resisting censorship and exile, the friars of San Marco fostered a cult of “the three martyrs” and venerated Savonarola as a saint. They encouraged women in local convents and surrounding towns to find mystical inspiration in his example, and, by preserving many of his sermons and writings, they helped keep his political as well as his religious ideas alive. The Florentine Republic inspired by Savonarola ended in 1512.
Savonarolan religious ideas found a reception elsewhere. In Germany and Switzerland the early Protestant reformers, most notably Martin Luther himself, read some of the friar’s writings and praised him as a martyr and forerunner, whose ideas on faith and grace anticipated Luther’s own doctrine of justification by faith alone. Within the Dominican Order Savonarola was repackaged as an innocuous, purely devotional figure and in this benevolent and unthreatening guise his memory lived on. It is still debated whether he was a prophet and saint or a misguided and fanatic trouble maker. Today, with most of Savonarola’s treatises and sermons and many of the contemporary sources (chronicles, diaries, government documents and literary works) available in critical editions, scholars can provide fresh, better informed assessments of his character and his place in the Renaissance, the Reformation and modern European history. This has led to steps being taken to secure his canonization.