The Bonfire of the Vanities – The Amazing Story of Savonarola

Savonarola

Girolamo Savonarola of Florence (1452-1498), Italy, was a preacher who powerfully denounced the corrupt lifestyles of the clergy, and urged the vast multitudes who came to hear him to repent.  He preached from the book of Revelation during the 1480’s and a genuine pre-Reformation moral revival broke out there.

His boldness and his outspoken preaching created both repentance and hostility.  Preaching directly from Revelation and then later adopting an apocalyptic preaching style, he made predictions about coming events which astonished the people. God seemed to be speaking through him. Crowds of up to 10,000 would come and listen.

The French invaded Italy in 1494, and such was his reputation that Savonarola successfully negotiated a peaceful outcome for Florence.  Whilst not actually having political power, he was able to influence lawmakers to produce a more compassionate government providing help for the poor in many ways.

The Bonfire of the Vanities

Such was his popularity that some 6000 of his teenage and young converts turned from troublemaking to marching through the city singing hymns! And on two occasions this ‘youth army’ collected items from peoples’ homes, cosmetics, pictures or books considered ungodly, which the citizens freely gave them as a sign of their change of heart. They made two colossal bonfires in the middle of town where all these collected items were burnt. This was the famous  ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’.

However, a combination of strict legislation against both obvious sin and lesser social sins caused a sharp decline in his popularity.  His constant preaching against Rome (calling the church ‘the Beast’) and his increasingly biting criticism of the Pope took its toll. He was finally excommunicated and sentenced to death by burning.

‘Your instructions,’ said Pope Alexander, ‘are to put this man to death. If you find him to be a new John the Baptist, still you are to put him to death.’  (Quoted by Leigh Churchill, p.288)

He was severely tortured for more than a month. The descriptions are difficult to read. This good man went from preaching repentance to amazed multitudes to the disgusting darkness of the torture chamber. Truly, he was a second John the Baptist, making way for the reformation.

During this period of torture he wrote devotional works on two of the Psalms which Luther later published. What an astonishing prophetic character was Savonarola!

He finally found peace on May 23rd 1498 after they had hanged and burnt him to death, carefully removing his remains so as not to allow any of his followers to collect them as ‘relics’.

After his robes had been removed, the bishop approached him and said, ‘I separate you from the church militant and from the church triumphant.’

Savonarola replied, ‘You have no power to separate me from the church triumphant to which I go!’ He died age 45.

Sources:
SM Houghton – Sketches from Church History (Banner of Truth)
Ken Curtis – Christian History Magazine, Glimpses #92
Leigh Churchill – The Age of Knights and Friars, Popes and Reformers (Authentic)

© 2008 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog

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