Girolamo Savonarola and the bonfire of the vanities

The Franciscan monk Girolamo Savonarola was the antithesis of Pope Alexander VI. Savonarola was an ascetic monk who preached against wealth and conspicuous consumption. Pope Alexander devoted his life to power, wealth and the pleasures of the flesh. As Savonarola’s influence in Florence grew throughout the 1490s he became increasingly obnoxious to Alexander. He remained a ‘little local difficulty’ until Savonarola produced his coup de theatre the 1497 ‘bonfire-of-the-vanities’. Savonarola was implicitly challenging the Church establishment. Late-fifteenth century Italy was turbulent. Charles VIII of France invaded as a direct challenge to Alexander himself. This threat from Charles plus Savonarola’s challenge was significant. As an adroit power-broker Alexander knew how to deal with Savonarola and within a year of his triumphant bonfire-of-the-vanities he was executed.

Wealth, its acquisition and use, is deeply troubling for many Christians. Wealth could be a reward from God for virtue. Obviously wealthy people tend to carefully select Biblical texts to support their case and ignore contrary evidence such as Matthew 19:24*. The consensus amongst those most dedicated to a religious life is that ostentatious consumption of wealth is displeasing to God. Great religious leaders weren’t hedonists and no monasteries had rules** making wealth an object of monastic life. Every monastic order at least aimed at austerity- though many failed. This evidence was ignored by the powerful.

Savonarola wasn’t eccentric. Where he differed from the broad mass of religious leaders was that he was charismatic. Standing in a long line of saintly Christian leaders Savonarola preached poverty as a practical activity. Citing St Augustine*** Savonarola saw wealth as a source of temptation. Monasteries weren’t suitable for everyone but everyone could embrace poverty. The simplicity of Savonarola’s message was that wealth was unncessary for daily life and an austere life should be embraced. The accumulation of wealth and its consumption added nothing to the quality of daily life, having the catastrophic outcome of eternal damnation.

Although Savonarola stood in the mainstream of thinking about wealth, the actuality of the Church was that it was hugely wealthy and powerful. Although locally important, Savonarola was easily swatted aside. The papacy used its power to crush him and Savonarola didn’t have powerful friends to support him. Unwittingly Savonarola’s campaign began a period of challenges to Church authority. The contradictions inherent in the Church became more glaring. Savonarola had demonstrated that many people were unhappy at the manifest corruption of the papal court but he didn’t challenge the theological basis of the Church. Indeed he accepted the right of the pope to excommunicate him. All of which was to change within twenty years of his execution.

Savonarola’s charisma brought the people of Florence on to the streets in a glorious cathartic bonfire-of-the-vanities. Their possessions were consumed in flames and Savonarola had his moment of glory. Unlike Alexander, he wasn’t a cunning politician and he was comprehensively out-manoeuvred. Excommunication followed on 13th May 1497, trial and execution came within a year. Alexander’s belief in ‘might is right’ succeeded in Florence but was to be a temporary victory as more significant opponents came into view.

                                                              ADDENDUM

By 1538 the papacy faced existential threats. The principal challenges came from Martin Luther (1517) nailing his 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg in Germany and Henry VIII (1538), in England, displacing the Pope altogether by making himself the head of the Church in England. Luther challenged the papacy theologically whilst Henry’s challenge was a pure power play. Europe now had alternative narratives to the papacy itself. Europe was convulsed over the coming centuries by religious wars of unparalleled ferocity. Savonarola didn’t have a coherent theological critique of the papacy and he wasn’t a power-broker but he was a harbinger of dissatisfaction with the corruption of the papacy in his own naive way.

*“And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Ambiguous Biblical text offers support for very many contradictory viewpoints and this is just one example.
** For St Benedict’s Rules see http://www.osb.org/rb/text/toc.html
***“Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” This aphorism is a succinct statement of temptation.

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