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The Florentine Monk

by C. H. Spurgeon
From the April 1869 Sword and Trowel


IN THE month of May this year it is proposed to hold a conference of Italian Christians in the fine old city of Florence. Gavazzi, whose evangelistic work among his countrymen has inspired new hopes in English breasts, as to the future of Protestantism in that land of olives and cypresses, has, with the assistance of those who are equally enthusiastic for the cause of God and truth, formed an Evangelical Alliance in Italy, for the purpose of unitedly combatting "the two great enemies of the divine religion of Christ—Popery and Rationalism." They thus hope to "present a compact phalanx against the expected assaults of the coming Œcumenical Council."1 Florence has not inaptly been chosen as the scene of this Protestant demonstration. Exactly four centuries ago, it witnessed the martyrdom of a Florentine monk, who, ere the Reformation dawned, and while, indeed, Martin Luther was a youth of six years of age, had aroused the enmity of one of the vilest miscreants of all the debased wretches that wore the triple crown, and had struck a blow at the pretensions of the Papacy, which was only the precursor of that mightier onslaught which staggered the see of Rome, and ushered in the Reformation. It is worth while to run over the incidents of that short but eventful life, since its lessons are as useful to-day as ever.
    Savonarola was born in 1452, of respectable parents, at Ferrara. From his grandfather, a physician to a noble duke, he gained his first acquaintance with learned pursuits; from his mother he obtained those lessons of goodness and piety which influenced his heart and moulded his character. Designed for the medical profesion, he soon evinced a passionate longing for other pursuits. Thoughtful, earnest, high-souled, his heart guided his head, and both became devoted to the inner world of spiritual life, into which he withdrew, bidding adieu to the scenes of greedy lust and worldly pleasures by which he was surrounded. He was not the first, we suppose, who sought to relieve his young burning heart by rhyming. We have very little left of his youthful effusions, but they indicate the great struggles of his soul, and foretell the thoughts of a riper and more matured and experienced observation. Thus early, he seemed to have gained a profound sense of the deep-seated corruptions of the apostate church. The profligate sensuous age moved him to write in terms of just severity; and it is noticeable how emphatically he lays the axe at the root of the upas-tree—2

"The earth so staggers under every vice,
That never will it lift its head again;
Rome is that head, so bowed with wickedness,
That ended now for ever is her reign."

    Deeply did he lament the corruptions of the church. Bitterly did he bewail its abandonment of the high mission to which he believed it had been called. And yet, when he saw the outside world, he viewed it with intense disgust. For him it had no attractions. He despised its allurements; he detested its vanities; and so, with a moral determination, and a stern self-denial, worthy of a nobler consummation, he retired into a Dominican cloister. At first a lay-brother, mending the garments and keeping the garden of the convent, he became, after a year of probation, a monk. He was an enthusiastic student. As he himself confesses, he strove after truth with all his powers. Truth was the empress of his soul. He loved her for her own sake. "She illumines," he says, "the soul with divine light, and leads it to communion with God, who is himself truth." Fortunately, he obtained, like his successor of the convent of Erfurt, a copy of the Holy Scriptures. How earnestly did he apply himself to a thorough investigation of its teachings! Here, in his solitary cell, shut out from the gaieties and fascinations of Italian life, isolated from others by his very earnestness and heart-yearnings, like a panting hart braying for the water-brooks, he thirsted for the translucent purity of God's all-satisfying truth. It is true, he read the Scriptures in the light—always a "dim, religious" one—of the church, but he could not shut his eyes to the awful revelations it gave of the abomination of desolations. His soul luxuriated in the peace-infusing teachings of the Word; but his heart was stirred up within him as he compared the church as it was with its ideal state. "Where," he asks, "are the precious stones—where the pure diamonds, the bright lamps, the sapphires, the white robes, and white roses of the church?" It was thus that fourteen years of retirement were spent; the fires of suffering purifying his nature, and leading him to that higher renunciation and nobler consecration so needed for the work of the future.
    Called from the seclusion of his cell, at the age of thirty-seven, to active labour in the city of Florence, Savonarola journeyed thither on foot—a dark, mysterious providence overhanging him; a disturbed world of conflicting thoughts within him; and an atmosphere of disquietude and gloom around. To what had his God called him? What meant those ceaseless agitations which electrified his soul, and burdened him as with a message from the Lord, crushing him to the earth? Subsequent events developed the foreshadowings.
    Just at this time, Florence was at the dizzying height of its renown. It possessed nearly a thousand fortified positions. Its beauty of situation, its rich lands, its luxuriance, its wealth, its treasures of art, its libraries, its seats of learning, magnificent palaces, unrivalled advantages and commercial prosperity, with its gaities and worldly attractions, made it one of the wonders of Europe. If England be, as the keen satire of Napoleon has represented, a nation of shopkeepers, Florence was well-nigh a city of bankers and merchants. Being the great banking-place of the Continent, its wealth was enormous. As Corinth, under the fostering care of Augustus, and in the zenith of its commercial glory, grew licentious, and proud, and reckless, so Florence, under the luxurious sway of Lorenzo di Medici the Magnificent, became heathenish and viciously immoral. Savonarola's voice was soon heard in the church of St. Mark, censuring the tendencies of the age, and laying, bare, with merciless severity, the corruptions of the church. It must have been a strange sight to see the spare, haggard form of his pale-faced, keen-eyed, Roman-nosed monk, exciting, the crowds of listeners, and overpowering them with his vigorous eloquence. There was nothing in his voice to allure attention. It was thin and weak. Nor was there anything in his manner, for he was unpractised in speaking; but his words carried weight, and each had a flaming fire-dart which pierced its way, and carried conviction. His denunciations of the paganism of Florence, and the gross abominations of the church, stirred the city to its depths. The friar's popularity grew and spread like living fire. Men listened and shuddered. Priests heard, trembled, and hated. The people grew enthusiastic. Salvation by faith, not by works—forgiveness of sin, not by absolution, but by Christ; these were unheard of truths from such a pulpit, and were as welcome as they were strange. With sternness of manner he denounced the prevailing sins of the time, and with affectionate entreaty besought men, like another John the Baptist, to "repent, for the kingdom of heaven was at hand." Indeed, his prophetic utterances of a visitation from God were listened to with much dismay. His extraordinary faithfulness in rebuking those current sins of the wealthy to which they thought they had a prescriptive right; his personal form of address, without which no minister or reformer can hope to be successful in soul-winning; his clear evangelic utterances as to the natural state of the soul, its need of redemption, and the suitability of the free gospel of God's grace to meet that need, told upon the people. They wept. They were silenced. Men who took down his discourses, were known to drop the pens from their hands. Country people walked miles to hear the great preacher; came, indeed, the night before the Sunday, and besieged the church doors at early morn, that they might be sure of a seat. Rich burghers gave them victuals, and even acted as doorkeepers. The convent church was too small; nor could the cathedral accommodate more than the three thousand persons who flocked to hear the friar.
    As prior of St. Mark, Savonarola was expected to pay homage to Lorenzo di Medici. He refused. In vain did Lorenzo seek to win the stern friar's confidence; he would loiter in the garden to attract his attention; money was given most royally to the poor; the sermons were heard; but all Lorenzo got in return was unsparing denunciation. Five men were sent to induce the friar to moderate his stinging criticisms, and to cease his prophetic utterances. "Go," was the stern answer, "and tell Lorenzo that he must repent of his sins, for God is about to punish him and his. He threatens me with banishment. Well, I am a foreigner, and he a citizen, and the first in the city; but know that I shall stay, and that he will soon be forced to quit." Strange to say, this declaration came true. Lorenzo the Magnificent lay on his death-bed. Anxious to be absolved from his sins, he sent for the monk, whom he had feared. Savonarola imposed three conditions. He was first to believe in God's ability and willingness to forgive; this the sick man confessed. Then he was to restore that which he had unrighteously gained. This duty he promised to perform by his heir. Thirdly, said Savonarola, "Give back to Florence her ancient liberty;" but Lorenzo turned his head away, and Savonarola departed.
    After Lorenzo's death he addressed himself to the work of reformation. Beginning where reformation, as well as charity, should begin, at home, he renovated his convent, induced the monks to reform, to live higher lives, to study, and to preach. Next, he sought the reformation of the Florentine State. Henceforth he must become a politician. It is useless to criticise and condemn: he may have been fanatical, unwise, foolish. He, at least, did not think so. He had his dreams of an ideal government, and he lived to see them come true, though they hastened his fate. He preached on the downfall of the State; declared that soon the Lord's vengeance would come upon the Florentines; announced the termination of the great house of Medici; and predicted that "Over the Alps one is coming sword in hand against Italy to chastise her tyrants. His coming will be in the storm and in the whirlwind, like that of Cyrus." At the time, no one believed the warning voice of the strange prophet. The city was at peace; people were married and given in marriage, and the end came not. But lo! the King of France came over the Alps, with an immense army, took Naples, and marched into Florence. Then believed they the message of the friar. The Medici were expelled. Savonarola appeared before the King of France, secured peace, obtained milder terms; and the Florentines were allowed to choose their own mode of government. On the friar, however, was devolved this task. He chose the democratic form; but Jesus Christ was to be King of the city. A general amnesty was proclaimed, and the streets of Florence were thus saved from the deluge of blood which seemed inevitable. A contemporary writer states that "Apart from the Father's preaching, streams of blood would have been seen to flow in the city; but his words and his authority, which stood at that time very high, appeased the storm, and hindered the carrying out of revengeful thoughts."
    It was marvellous how his power was felt. He was looked upon as a deliverer and a prophet. His words were treasured up, and were held as coming from God himself. His holy ascendancy was such that men everywhere saw it, felt it, were cowed under it, and not a few wished to be delivered from it. He waged relentless war against the sins of the rich, and denounced the vices of the poor. He changed for a time the character of society in the city. Dr. Seibert, in his biography, "Savonarola der Reformator von Florenz," describes the wondrous effect of the friar's teaching:—"Mortal enemies fell into each other's arms and became reconciled; the rich spontaneously restored ill-gotten gains: one citizen in particular made restitution of 3,000 ducats, the possession of which disquieted his conscience. Women renounced of their own accord their pride of dress, and went about in modest garments of drab. Ballads and love songs were heard no longer in the country, and religious singing took their place. In the city the theatres and taverns soon became empty and desolate, and in a short time cards and dice were no longer to be seen, vain pomp disappeared, all moral earnestness, and a wonderful degree of love and devotion to eternal things laid hold of the people." As one of his opponents said, "The people seemed to become fools from love to Christ." At the season of carnival men delivered up their dice, cards, and card-boards, scandalous images, and immoral novels, and women their rouge, scented waters, veils, false hair, mirrors—indeed, never before, and we fear never since, were women more self-sacrificing—all these luxuries were collected in the marketplace and burnt, youths singing in procession, round what has been called this "auto-da-fé of sin and worldly pleasures."
    Besides improving the social condition of the poor, he endeavoured to reform the church. He never spared the priests—they were "the devil's midwives." Referring to the primitive church, he once said, "In those days they had a golden priest and wooden vessels, but now we have golden vessels and a wooden priest." But especially was he emphatic in his testimony to the preciousness of the Scriptures. "The ruin of the church," he said, "is to be traced to this, that Christians no longer read the Scriptures; it is owing to this that thick darkness broods over the Christian people, and that impiety gets so much the upper hand." He very imperfectly understood the Scriptures, but he was alone in demanding that they should be read, and their lessons taught to the people.
    A man like Savonarola, it is needless to remark, must soon have aroused the enmity of the Papacy. It was no difficulty for him to find foes; they compassed him about like bees. They were principally of the order of the Franciscans, who always hated the order of which Savonarola was a member—the Dominican. News reached Rome of the terrible power and popularity of the friar. The Pope's first thought was to conciliate so dangerous a foe. He, therefore, offered him a cardinal's hat. But it was declined. "I wish," he said, "for no other red hat than that of a martyr, dyed with my own blood." It was equally in the power of the Pope to grant him that favour—for which, indeed, he felt most inclined. He was then respectfully and in a most fatherly way invited to show himself at Rome. "Beloved son! Health to thee, and apostolic benediction." But, as everyone knows, the Pope's blessing was always a curse, and in this case the blessing concealed—or only partly concealed—a power that would by penance, prison, or poison, reduce the friar to everlasting silence. Savonarola was not to be caught. He knew the man with whom he was dealing. The Pope was the incarnation of all the devilry that ever escaped from hell. An abandoned wretch, guilty of scandalous crimes—who could trust him? And so, wisely, the friar refused to go. He did not refuse, however, to fulminate against the Pope. He, too—like most of us—could issue his little bull from his diminutive Vatican. At last the Pope prohibited his preaching, and ordered that the congregation of St. Mark should be dissolved. Such elements were, however, not readily dissolved. Savonarola for a time maintained silence, but was stung into action by the Pope's Breve. "I cannot forbear preaching," he declared; "the word of God is as a fire in my heart; unless I speak it, it burns my marrow and bones." "It is now time," he said, "to open the den; we will turn the key; such a stench and so much filth will be vomited forth by Rome as will overspread all Christendom, and everybody will be tainted with it." At last the Pope applied to the Signori to deliver up this heretic; but it was in vain. Franciscan monks were sent to preach him down; but his preaching went up. Then it was, with his customary politeness, that the Pope sent a gracious message, hurling his curse at his head, cutting him off as a rotten member of the church's body, and giving him over to the powers of hell. Savonarola had his defenders in Florence, and those were among the wealthy as well as among the poor; but a host of circumstances were combining to ruin him. His friends were injudicious. His new state constitution was, as might be expected, a failure. His alliance with the King of France, who had done nothing for the church, damaged his popularity. Plague and famine irritated the people; and, as no miracle was wrought on their behalf, Savonarola was disliked. One of his friends foolishly put a controversy with the Franciscans upon the issue of a trial by the ordeal of fire. The fire was prepared in the marketplace of Florence; the citizens expected to behold a notable spectacle; but the Signori and a shower of rain interfered and dispersed the crowd. The mob then turned upon Savonarola; the monastery was assailed; the once popular monk was made a prisoner; and the Pope was communicated with. Overcome with joy, "His Holiness" granted permission for the monk to be tortured. A recantation was demanded of him, but he refused. He was then stretched seven times during the week upon the rack. In the height of his sufferings he cried, "Lord, take my spirit," and, worn out by the tortures, he agreed to confess. When, however, he had rested a while, he withdrew his recantation, and boldly avowed all that he had previously taught. Between the day of his trial and the day of his execution he wrote an exposition of the fifty-first Psalm, which Luther highly prized, and published in Germany.
    He was burnt, with two friends, on the 22nd of May, 1498. The bishop deprived him of his priestly garments, saying, "Thus I exclude thee from the militant and triumphant church." "From the church militant thou mayst," exclaimed Savonarola, "but from the church triumphant thou canst not." He died blessing the people who had deserted him, and clinging to the Christ whose love had never departed from him.
    The question has often been asked, How far was Savonarola the herald of Protestantism? The best answer to that question is, we think, furnished in his admirable work—far ahead of the times in which it was written—"The Triumph of the Cross." We are glad that those enterprising publishers, Messrs. Hodder and Stoughton have brought it out in a cheap and handsome form.3 For the sake of the memory of the martyr, it should be read; for the sake of the truths it so luminously sets forth, it deserves a wide circulation. Mr. Travers Hill, beside writing an interesting sketch of the Italian Reformer's life, has ably translated the work. At a time when the church held every one in bondage, when the Scriptures were hid from view, and the masses were ignorant of the way of salvation—when darkness covered the earth and gross darkness the people—when the church to which every one bowed in lowly submission was so corrupt as to allow a pope stained with every crime to preside over it—and when Luther's shrill testimony had not as yet been given—it is pleasant to find words of such evangelic power written in the cloister of a monastery. And though Savonarola was wedded to many of the errors of the church, yet his testimony in favour of justification by faith and not by works, the forgiveness of sins by Christ and not by man, was clear and decisive. His object was undoubtedly to purify the church of Rome, not to destroy it; but it is evident that throughout his life he was, if loyal to his church, far more loyal to Christ.


    1. The First Vatican Council (1869-70) was about to get underway when Spurgeon wrote this article. Among the decrees of Vatican I was the notorious declaration of Papal Infallibility.
    2. "Upas-tree." A fabled poisonous tree whose vapours were supposed to be fatal to all life that came under its influence.
    3. The Triumph of the Cross by JEROME SAVONAROLA. Translated from the Latin, with Notes and a Biographical Sketch. By O'Dell Travers Hill, F.R.G.S. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

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