Review: Girolamo Savonarola (Crawford)

Rating: ★★★½

Author: William Henry Crawford (1855-1944) spent much of his career as President of Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. He is also the author of The Church and the Slum.

Girolamo Savonarola was a reformer within Catholicism who boldly opposed the excesses of the Italian clergy. He was greatly beloved by Martin Luther; readers of inspirational books will also remember his prophetic experiences as recounted in James Gilchrist Lawson’s Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians.


Savonarola was born in 1452 and suffered martyrdom in 1498. Like Wyclif and Hus, he sought reform within the Catholic church, but too few sided with him to see the reforms accomplished, and he was eventually excommunicated and executed. He was never held guilty of heresy, and it appears that many Catholics revered him after his death. He was a contemporary of many very prominent Renaissance men: Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Crawford offers a decent biography of a legendary and enigmatic figure of the early Reformation. (After reading Lawson, I had some difficulty finding a biography of Savonarola, and Lawson does not tell us his sources.) This biography is relatively short, optimistic, and somewhat florid in language.


Some high points of Savonarola’s life include:

  • His calling. Giroalamo had to defy his family to become a monk. At the time, he wrote a poem called “The Ruin of the World.”
  • His call for moral reform. Soon after receiving his monastic robe, he saw the corruption of Rome and wrote another poem called “The Ruin of the Church.”
  • His prophetic visions. Savonarola’s supposed prophecies seem spurious at times, but in the main they hold water, especially as concerns the entry of Charles VIII of France to invade Italy. Here Savonarola functioned as a legitimate prophet in the biblical sense, which was not mere prediction but leading men to repentance.
  • His bonfire of vanities. Florentines gave up their worldly treasures to be burned, as in the Book of Acts.
  • His writings. I was not aware of Savonarola himself being an author, but then, nearly all of the people we know as reformers were very active writers. Crawford gives numerous moving quotations from Savonarola’s writings, many of which I have given below. Savonarola began publishing his sermons around the time he took the Duomo pulpit in 1489, and by the end of his life nine years later, he had thirty volumes of published work, including tracts, poems, songs, and sermons. Crawford sums up the great influence of his writings in the following passage, worth quoting at length:

His published sermons were read in France, in Germany, and in England. Even the sultan had some of them translated that he might read them.

He wrote Miserere and Exposition of the Thirtieth Psalm. The Miserere was widely published after his death, and in a remarkably short space of time ran through thirteen separate editions. Both were republished by Martin Luther at Strassburg. In the preface Luther declared that Savonarola was a precursor of the Protestant doctrine, and one of the martyrs of the Reformation. “This man,” said he, “was put to death solely for having desired that some one should come to purify the slough of Rome.”

Michael Angelo . . . was wont to read the sermons of the great Prior of San Marco, and talk of the life and character of the statesman-preacher.

Protestants have pointed out, influenced in part, no doubt, by the strong words of Martin Luther, that Savonarola deserves a place among the great reformers in the Protestant movement which had its beginning in the fifteenth century. They hold that when we speak of John Wyclif and his heroic work in England and of John Huss and what he did and suffered in Bohemia, we ought also to speak, and very clearly and emphatically, too, of Girolamo Savonarola as the man who more than any other, and more than all others combined, gave a moral and a spiritual tone and character to the Renaissance.


Considering how difficult it is to find Savonarola’s published works in English, I was somewhat disappointed that the author didn’t do more to outline the sources of his many quotations.

The same problem was true in Lawson’s Deeper Experiences. On opening Crawford’s book, I was expecting to read the story of “spiritual baptism” that is retold in Lawson’s Deeper Experiences; and while there are similar stories in this biography, about several prophetic occurrences in Savonarola’s life, the story is not told in the same way. I greatly enjoyed this biography as a great introduction to an important reformer and martyr, but I do hope to find another, more detailed biography of Savonarola in the future. (I would love it if someone would recommend one in the comments!)

Quotes from Savonarola’s Writings:

“I preach the regeneration of the Church, taking the Scriptures as my sole guide.”

“I have no friend save Christ and the righteous.”

“It is quite a mistake to say that we have entered upon a new mode of life. A return to the principles and example of our saintly predecessors is not the adoption of a new mode of life . . . but . . . to live in a cell handsome enough for a prince; to hold possessions contrary to the profession of one’s Order; to wear rich cloth . . . to pray little; these things are indeed innovations and are a stumbling-block to souls.”

“Forsake pomp and vanities,” he cried out in his pulpit. “Sell all superfluous things, and bestow the money on the poor.”

“The vengeance of the eternal God is hot! From peasant to pope, he will strike sin and break corruption in pieces.”

“In the primitive church the chalices were of wood, the prelates of gold; in these days the Church hath chalices of gold and prelates of wood.”

“In these days there is no grace, no gift of the Holy Spirit that may not be bought and sold.”

“You forsake me, deride me,” said he, “yet shall I gain a few disciples, who will give all up for Christ’s sake; they will dress like the poor … they will be truthful; they will climb the mount of faith; they will have revelations from heaven and more learning, not however, the learning of Scotus or the poets, but that of their own conscience and of Holy Writ.”

“Charity does not consist in written papers, the true books of Christ are the apostles and the saints; the true reading of them, is to imitate their lives.”

“If any one asks why the will is free, we reply unto them, Because it is will.”

“Take the example of the mother with the child. Who hath taught this young woman, who hath had no children before, to nurse her babe? Love. See what fatigue she endureth by day and by night to rear it, and how the heaviest fatigue seemeth light to her. What is the cause of this? It is love. See what ways she hath, what loving caresses and sweet words for this little babe of hers! What hath taught her these things? Love. Take the example of Christ, who, moved by the deepest charity, came to us as a little child, in all things like unto the sons of men, and submitted to hunger and thirst, to heat and cold and discomfort. What hath urged Him to do this? Love.”

“Florence! Jesus Christ, who is King of the universe, hath willed to become thy King. Wilt thou have Him for thy King?”

“Who is he that putteth bounds to the mercy of God, and thinketh to bear the waters of the ocean in his hands?” (Exposition of the Thirtieth Psalm)

“I have embarked on a stormy flood, assailed on all sides by contrary winds. I would fain reach the port, yet I can find no dock; would fain repose, yet find no resting-place … Come, O Lord, since thou dost have me steer through these deep waters, let thy will be done.”

“Now, if Jesus Christ has done all these things without miracles, it is the greatest of all miracles; and if He has accomplished them by miracles this religion is Divine.” (The Triumph of the Cross)

“The time draws near to open the casket, and if we but turn the key there will come forth such a stench from the Roman sink that it will spread through all Christendom, and every one will perceive it.”

“When the torture was over and he was led back to his cell, he immediately knelt down and prayed in the words of Christ, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.””

“I separate thee from the Church militant —and—and—from the Church triumphant.” “From the Church militant,” quickly replied Savonarola; “thou canst do that, but thou hast no power to separate me from the Church triumphant.”

Savonarola’s Relationship to Lorenzo:

“Lorenzo sent rich gifts to the convent. The only allusion to the large benefactions was in a sermon, when the preacher said, “A faithful dog does not give up barking in his master’s defense because a bone is thrown to him.” To the delight of the monks large pieces of gold were found in the boxes of the monastery. Savonarola, knowing well enough where they came from, ordered them sent to the Good Men of St. Martin, a society whose business it was to care for the poor.”

“Lorenzo the Magnificent lay dying. … To the amazement of all he commanded them to send for Savonarola, and said, “I know no honest friar save this one.”

“When Pope Innocent VIII came to the papal throne Lorenzo made friends with him, and through this friendship obtained a cardinal’s hat for his son Giovanni, then only fourteen years of age. This boy-cardinal afterwards became Pope Leo X, whose bull Martin Luther burned at Wittenberg.”

“Florence,” writes Guicciardini, “could not have had a better or more delightful tyrant.”

The Times in Which He Lived:

“We deem this friar to be a good and pious man, thoroughly versed in the Christian faith. He has labored many years for the welfare of the people, and no fault has ever been detected either in his life or his doctrine.”

“On the night of June 14, the pope’s eldest son, the Duke of Candia, was killed by a dagger thrust, and his body thrown into the Tiber. The murderer was the duke’s own brother, Cesare Borgia, Cardinal of Valencia.”

“The plague was now on in Florence. Savonarola was shut up in his convent ministering to the sick, writing letters to friends, publishing small tractates, and finishing his monumental work on The Triumph of the Cross.”

Two Poems:

“Perhaps the most significant event during the seven years spent in this monastery, was the discovery that the corruption which he had seen blighting the world was also blasting the Church. The foul atmosphere of the court and the rabble had touched also the priests and monks. It was in Ferrara that he wrote his poem on “The Ruin of the World.” In Bologna he wrote a new poem. Its title was, “The Ruin of the Church.” In his poetic vision the Church was represented as a chaste and venerable virgin. Burning to speak with her, he asks, “Where is the light of early days? Where are the ancient saints? Where is the learning, love, and purity of olden times?” Taking him by the hand the virgin leads him to a poor cave where she dwells. She shows him her beautiful body “disfigured with the wine red finger marks of evil.” “Who hath done this?” he asks. The Church replies, “A false, proud, harlot; Rome hath done it.” Then it was that the fiery indignation of the future prophet broke forth in strongest passion, “O God, lady, that I might break those spreading wings!”

His Preaching Material:

“He boldly announced that the Church would be scourged; that it would be regenerated; and that all this would come to pass speedily. This announcement was not made as a vision; it was a conclusion supported by rational argument and on the authority of the Bible. ”

“His theme in this series of sermons was the Book of Revelation. … He reproved sin, denounced the corruptions of the time, and pointed out the impending threatenings of God’s wrath.”

“The most powerful impressions made by his preaching were not through his impassioned denunciations of vice and evil-doing, but in his touching and beautiful descriptions of the mercy of God and his love, and in his tender and earnest pleadings with the people to bring their lives into harmony with the divine life of Jesus Christ.”

“He re-read the prophets; the noble and impassioned addresses of Isaiah, and the frightful woes and lamentations of Jeremiah.”

“The iniquity of my sanctuary crieth to me from the earth.”

Reform and Revival:

“His one aim now was to carry out a program of reform…. The practice of manual labor was introduced, the study of painting and sculpture, and the art of writing and illuminating manuscripts were encouraged. …Most earnestly he inculcated on all the study of the Holy Scripture… One reason for teaching the Syriac and the Chaldee was that he might later fulfill his holy purpose of preaching the Gospel to the Turk.”

“He dreamed of a regeneration which would revive the whole Church and bring Constantinople again within the Christian fold. Even in this age, so dark morally and spiritually, Savonarola had the spirit of the true missionary of the first century and the twentieth.”

“The transformations in the social life of Florence, from 1495 to 1497, read like the story of miracles… Theaters and taverns were empty; cards and dice disappeared; the churches were crowded; … the Prior of San Marco was everywhere hailed”

Savonarola wanted to see the entire Catholic church rise up to depose Alexander and choose a righteous pope:

“His plan involved the co-operation of the sovereigns of France, Spain, Germany, England, and Hungary in calling a council of the whole Church.”

On Obedience and Authority

“We are not compelled to obey all commands; … when in evident contradiction with the law of charity laid down in the Gospel, it is our duty to resist them, even as St. Paul resisted St. Peter.”

“It will be observed that the one sin of which Savonarola was guilty was disobedience. He was not pronounced a heretic, but only described as “suspected of heresy.”

“The righteous prince or the good priest,” said he, “is merely an instrument in the Lord’s hands for the government of the people. But when the higher Agency is withdrawn from prince or priest he is no longer an instrument, but a broken tool.”

Relationship to Charles VIII of France

Savonarola “announced his text, “Behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth.” A strange alarm seemed to sweep over the audience. Pico della Mirandola declared afterwards that he felt a cold shiver run over him, and that his hair stood on end. ”

“The flood had come with the French king—so Savonarola believed.”

“France, under Charles VIII, began “the mighty movement that was to bring life to Europe by Italy’s death.” (Villari) This invasion Gibbon describes as “An event which changed the face of Europe.”

“Many carried concealed weapons and more than one steel corslet was hidden under the closely drawn robes of outraged Florentines crowded together in the dimly-lighted Duomo. … There was no allusion to politics. Nothing was said about old party or new party.”

From his sermon after the announcement of the invasion:

“I have long been as a father; I have labored all the days of my life to teach you the truths of straight and of Godly living, yet I have received nothing but tribulation … Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

There came “a message from France announcing the death of Charles VIII. He had died on the 7th of April, the very day of the ordeal of fire.”

Relationship to the Pope:

“I preach,” said he, “the doctrine of the holy apostles, … and am ready, if I should be in error, not only to correct myself, but to avow it publicly, and make amends before the whole people. And now again I repeat that which I have always said, that is, that I submit myself and my writings to the correction of the Holy Roman Church.”

“To him Alexander was “an infidel and a heretic,” who had purchased St. Peter’s chair for money. He was, therefore, not a true pope.”

“The position of Savonarola at this point was thoroughly Protestant.”

“The pope now rose to strike down the reformer of the North, who had dared speak out so boldly against the Church.”


“The name Piagnoni, meaning “the weepers,” was given in derision. The Piagnoni were strongly opposed to the Medici, believed in popular government, were in full sympathy with the movement for moral reform, and were the stout defenders of the rights of the people.”

“He said to the boys, “Sing as much as you will, but sing hymns and not immoral songs. I will write songs for you.”

The Medicis were temporarily deposed during Savonarola’s lifetime and ascendency in Florence’s most prominent pulpit. Wikipedia states simply that he became “de facto” rule of Florence. Crawford writes that “the Piagnoni were, for the time, the absolute masters of Florence.” but that Savonarola “held himself utterly aloof from narrow and party spirit.”

Bonfire of the vanities:

“Gambling devices of all sorts were there, musical instruments which had been used in the revelries of former carnivals, lascivious books both in Latin and Italian, indecent pictures and pieces of sculpture, women’s dresses with immodest figures on them, and gay and fantastic carnival trappings of all sorts. The apex of the pyramid was crowned with a personification of old King Carnival.”

“The white-robed children arranged in front of the old Palace and the Loggia dei Lanzi! Singing their lauds and hymns in honor of King Jesus, they cried out their childish invectives against the carnival, and shouted with fine enthusiasm, “Viva Gesu Christo, nostra Re!” At a given signal torches lighted the pyramid at the four corners, and the .mighty pile blazed and flamed in mad fury! The children shouted louder than ever! The trumpeters of the Signory sounded their trumpets; the bells from the Palace tower pealed forth notes of triumph, and all the people in the Piazza shouted with the children, shouted as they had never shouted before, “Long live Jesus Christ, King of Florence.” So ended the carnival of 1497.”

On Peacekeeping:

“Do not stain your hands in blood; do not disobey the precepts of the Gospel, nor your superior’s commands.”

“Prayer,” he said to the friars, “is the only weapon to be employed by a minister of the Gospel.”

On Prophecy:

“Perhaps a word ought to be said just here with reference to Savonarola’s claim to prophetic gifts. It will be remembered that from the beginning of his public ministry he saw visions, in which it seemed to him that God actually spoke to him and gave him a message for the people. The word which he proclaimed was not his word but God’s word. This he said over and over again. More than once, too, he foretold events which actually came to pass. There were two notable instances, however, in which he failed. First, in the case of Charles VIII, whom he described as the scourge of God, who would punish the princes of Italy and be the means of regenerating the Church. This Charles did not do.”

“The second notable failure was in the prophecy that he would “turn the key,” and that the princes of the nations would rise up to depose Alexander, and adopt means for the reformation of the Church.”

“in some instances Savonarola failed to distinguish between human discernment of the inevitable results of a course of action and direct, immediate revelation.”

“The prophet is a discerner rather than a foreteller.”

This review was written in November 2015.

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