Savonarola, Girolamo by Faye Huntington

Four hundred and thirty-four years—1452-1886. What wonderful events have been taking place all along through these years since the young Girolamo first saw the light! And I have been wondering what Savonarola would have said and done had he lived in this nineteenth century. He is spoken of as one whose soul was stirred by ardent faith which burned through all obstacles; as a fervid orator and as a sagacious ruler, who evolved order out of chaos; as one who to maintain his cause of reform braved single-handed the whole power of the Papacy. He is described as a serious, quiet child, early showing signs of mental power. The books which were his favorites would, I fear, be pronounced dry by the boys of to-day. But although he was given to solid reading, he was fond of music and poetry, and even wrote verses himself. He enjoyed solitude, and loved to wander alone along the banks of the River Po. I ought to have told you that his native city was Ferrara, in Italy. He was expected to succeed his grandfather who was an eminent physician, and with that end in view he was carefully trained. But as he grew older, he found himself growing to regard the thought with disfavor, and as time went on he became convinced that "his vocation was to cure men's souls instead of men's bodies." Yet he was for a long time restrained from entering upon the priesthood by regard for the hopes and desires of his parents. But at length after having made this his daily prayer, "Lord, teach me the way my soul must walk," the path of duty became clear and he, avoiding the painful farewells, slipped away from home one day when the rest of the family were absent at a festival, writing an affectionate note of explanation and farewell. He entered a monastery at Bologna, where he gave himself up to the work of special preparation for the duties of his profession.

After some years he was sent to Florence to preach. At first his plain and severe denunciations of the prevailing sins of the time repelled the people who preferred to go where they could hear more polished and less conscience-awakening sermons, and Savonarola mourned over his apparent failure to reach the hearts of the multitude who were rushing on in the ways of sinful indulgence. But his soul was moved with zeal "for the redemption of the corrupt Florentines. He must, he would, stir them from their lethargy of sin." He was convinced that he was in the line of duty, and the more indifferent his hearers were the more anxious he grew for their awakening. Actuated by this motive he suddenly found his voice and revealed his powers as an orator. God had shown him how to reach men's hearts at last, and "he shook men's souls by his predictions and brought them around him in panting, awestruck crowds;" then at the close of his denunciations of sin, his voice would sink into tender pleading and sweetly he would speak of the infinite love and mercy of God the Father.

After a time, St. Mark's Church would not hold the crowds which came to hear him and he was invited to preach in the Cathedral. He was now acknowledged as a power in Florence, and the great Lorenzo de' Medici who was then at the height of his fame as a ruler, was alarmed, and he sent a deputation of five of the leaders of the government to advise the monk to be more moderate in his preaching, hinting that trouble might follow a disregard of this advice. But the monk was unmoved. He replied, "Tell your master that although I am an humble stranger and he the city's lord, yet I shall remain and he will depart." He also declared that he owed his election to God, and not to Lorenzo, and to God alone would he render obedience.

Lorenzo was very angry, but he tried to silence the monk by bribery, but Savonarola would not be bribed nor driven. He continued to preach with great fervor, denouncing sin in high places as well as in low. You know that in those times corruption had crept into the Church of Christ, and it was against these sins of the Church that his most scathing denunciations were hurled. He had many followers, and he pushed his reforms in Church and State. His enemies grew more bitter and fiercer. Remonstrances from those in authority had no effect. He was offered a cardinal's hat, but would not accept the conditions. He said, "I will have no hat but that of the martyr, red with mine own blood."

And this was his fate; at last he was put to death in 1498. Almost his last words were, "You cannot separate me from the Church triumphant! that is beyond thy power." In the convent of St. Mark's are preserved various relics of the martyed monk, among which are his Bible with notes by his own hand, and a portrait said to have been painted by Fra Bartolommeo. I have seen a copy of this portrait. It is in profile, with the Friar's cowl. At the first glance the expression of the prominent features seems strangely stern, but as you study the face it seems to soften and the sternness becomes sadness mingled with tenderness. One can imagine those worn and pallid features lighted up with excitement, the eyes animated and glowing with zeal, and the lips so expressive of power, relaxing into a smile even, and thus looking upon it we wonder not that crowds hung upon his words.

Hatred of sin, zeal for its removal from Church and State, seems to have been two of his strong characteristics. And he was ever bold and active in lifting up and carrying forward the standard of truth. If sometimes his zeal outran his wisdom and judgment, if sometimes his enthusiasm seemed to reach what we might call a religious frenzy in which he heard supernatural voices and saw visions, we can but believe in his sincerity and admire his boldness and commend his fearless exposure of sin. And as we study his character again and again we wonder as in the beginning of this sketch, how he would have acted in these days when sin "comes in like a flood!" Have we not need of a Savonarola? Have we not need of an army of strong, fearless men and women who shall lift up the standard of the Gospel against the tide of sin? One thought more: will each of my young readers enlist in this army and be diligent in preparing to meet the attacks of the enemy?