Prophet Jeremiah Ghosted Into Renaissance

SAVONAROLA.  A Fabrication of History

by  Damien F. Mackey

What I shall be suggesting here is that the biblical prophet Jeremiah, of c. 600 BC, a real historical person, has been ghostly projected to the supposed 1400’s AD in the form of the generic Jeremiah-like Jew, “Don Isaac ben Judah Abravanel”, who in turn became Italianised as “Savonarola”.

Was Savonarola just a fictitious Italianised version of the Israelite prophet Jeremiah?

Well he seems to be.

And, if he is, then that would be a chronological displacement of 2000 years (Jeremiah 600 BC, Savonarola 1452-1498 AD). And that is now becoming really massive!

I have already in this series, The Chronology of the Alpha and the Omega (TCAO), argued for some significant multi-identifications of the prophet Jeremiah. Thus:

(i) His ‘Obadiah names: Tobias (Book of Tobit); Job (Book of Job); ‘Obadiah (Book of ‘Obadiah). He being also the matrix for the Indian Buddha, from ‘Obadiah.

(ii) His Jeremiah names: Jeremiah (Book of Jeremiah); Nehemiah (Book of Nehemiah); Mantimanhe (serving the kings of Assyria); Mentuemhet or Mehmet (in Egypt). He being also the matrix for Mehmet, or Mohammed. He also again being the “Nehemiah” contemporaneous with Mohammed.

(iii) His title, Tirshatha (or variations of this apparently Indo-European word) being the matrix for Siddhartha, the supposed name of Buddha, but actually a title. Here I should also like to add, for consideration, the Indian preacher Tirthankara.

I have also argued that Jeremiah was the matrix for the ‘Greek’ philosopher, Socrates. Admittedly Socrates is supposed to have received a full martyrdom, whereas Jeremiah suffered beating, imprisonment and near death in a cistern. But there is something incongruous about the martyrdom of the aged Socrates (his drinking hemlock being a Greek element). Jeremiah was, like Socrates, ‘under trial’, leading to a ‘martyrdom’ – though Jeremiah’s ‘martyrdom’ would not result in actual violent death (despite the tradition that he, as Jeremiah, was murdered – stoned to death, or poisoned), but nevertheless the holy man experienced many ‘martyrdoms’, and The Jerome Biblical Commentary 19:98 actually designates the substantial block of Jeremiah 36:1-45:5, as “Martyrdom of Jeremiah”.

So I then proposed that Socrates is basically the apocalyptic Israelite prophet Jeremiah re-written into an Athenian Greek context. And I shall now be proposing that Savonarola, “a martyr of preaching”, is basically the apocalyptic Israelite prophet Jeremiah re-written into a Renaissance Italian context, as a Christian and a Dominican friar, whose apocalypse was now, not the Fall of Jerusalem to the Chaldeans, and the Babylonian Exile, but the New Testament’s Book of Revelation.

Now, with Jeremiah’s proposed identification as Mohammed (and the latter’s contemporary, Nehemiah), then we already have a time displacement of 1200 years: the 600’s BC being sucked into the 600’s AD. The so-called ‘Dark Ages’, like a Black Hole, sucking into its nothingness real BC time events. This is the fiction of the historians. But now it will emerge, if this new article has any validity, that the supposed 1400’s AD may also be absorbing (to what extent will still need to be determined) real BC time events.

The name Girolamo (Savonarola) is just the Italianised version of Jerome, which is like Jeremiah. In fact he is often called Jerome Savonarola. But I am also going to need to establish an Israelite/ Jewish connection also with the name Savonarola – just as I had been able to connect to Jeremiah both ‘Hindu’ names/titles, Buddha and Siddhartha. This I shall do through a supposed Jewish contemporary of Savonarola’s, Abravanel, from which name I believe evolved the Italianised name ‘Savonarola’. What I shall be arguing here is that the biblical prophet Jeremiah, of c. 600 BC, a real historical person, has been ghostly projected to the supposed 1400’s AD in the form of the generic Jeremiah-like Jew, “Don Isaac ben Judah Abravanel”, who in turn became Italianised as “Savonarola”.

A Jeremiah Type

The fiery Renaissance preacher, a supposed Dominican friar, Fra Girolamo, pronouncing doom upon Florence, is at the very least a Jeremiah type, coming in the spirit of Jeremiah. Commentators have already readily noticed this. Perhaps they might have paused further (though the implications may have been too immense to contemplate) when they read Savonarola’s purely Jeremian words (as taken from Jonathan Kirsch’s A History of the End of the World, Harper, 2006, p. 98).

“I have sometimes thought, as I came down from the pulpit, that it would be better if I talked no more and preached no more about these things – better to give up and leave it all to God …. But whenever I went up into the pulpit again, I was unable to contain myself. To speak the Lord’s words has been for me a burning fire within my bones and my heart. It was unbearable. I could not speak. I was on fire. I was alight with the spirit of the Lord”.

The prophet Jeremiah says almost identically (Jeremiah 20:9):

“If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot”.

Commentators might pause even further still after reading T. Cheyne’s comparisons between Jeremiah and Savonarola, in whom ‘several of the old Hebrew prophets seemed united’ (Jeremiah: His Life and Times, Google Books, pp. 203-205, emphasis added):


… I would rather compare Jeremiah with one who was mighty both in words and in deeds
(Acts vii. 22), and whom a sympathetic poetess has painted
perhaps more truly than her sister-artist in prose.’ Need I
mention his name?

“This was he, Savonarola, who, while Peter sank With his whole boat-load, cried courageously, ‘Wake, Christ; wake, Christ!’ Who also by a princely deathbed cried,
‘Loose Florence, or God will not loose thy soul!’ Then fell back the Magnificent and died Beneath the star-look shooting from the cowl, Which turned to wormwood-bitterness the wide Deep sea of his ambitions.”

I admit that Jeremiah had not the hopefulness described in
the opening lines; Jerusalem was a less promising field of
work than, with all its faults, Florence was in the age of
Lorenzo. But do not the closing lines give almost a reflexion
of Jeremiah’s attitude towards Jehoiakim? Savonarola had, I
suppose, a richer nature than Jeremiah. In him several of the
old Hebrew prophets seemed united. He had the scathing
indignation of Amos, and the versatility of Isaiah, as well as the tenderness of Jeremiah. He differs most from the

latter in two respects in his emphatic reassertion of the principle of theocratic legislation, and in his ultra-supernaturalistic theory of prophecy, which disturbed the simplicity of his faith in his own inspiration. Again and again, however, in his latter days, his preaching reminds us of Jeremiah’s. “Your sins,” he cries to the Florentines, “make me a prophet. . . . And if ye will
not hear my words, I say unto you that
I will be the prophet
Jeremiah, who foretold the destruction of
Jerusalem, and
bewailed it when destroyed.” Like Jeremiah, he had many a
sore inward struggle; “an inward fire,” he says, “consumeth
my bones (comp. Jer. xx. 9), and compelleth me to speak.”
Like Jeremiah, he was no respecter of persons; he fought
bravely, and outwardly at least was defeated. Like Jeremiah,
he foresaw the end of the struggle.
“If you ask me in
general” so he said, shortly before he was burned at the
stake, in the convent-church of St. Mark’s “as to the issue of this struggle, I reply, Victory. If you ask me in a particular sense, I reply, Death. For the master who wields the hammer, when he has used it, throws it away. So He did with Jeremiah, whom He caused to be stoned at the end of his ministry. But Rome will not put out this fire, and if this be put out, God will light another, and indeed it is already lighted everywhere, only they perceive it not.”

It was winter both in Jeremiah’s time and in Savonarola’s.
Which was the more favoured of these two heralds of spring? I think, Jeremiah, because his prophecy of spring was fulfilled,
after a brief interval, to his own people. ….

[End of quote]

And indeed there does seem to be a distinct Jewish-Israelitish connection with Savonarola (who some even suspect was Jewish). It is with his supposed Jewish contemporary, Abravanel, who I believe also to be a ghostly projection of the real Jeremiah. Thus Benzion Netanyahu asks (in Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman and Philosopher?, Cornell University Press, 5th edition, 1998, as quoted by Mor Altshuler at Wed, January 19, 2011 Shvat 14, 5771):

How did [Abravanel] this Jewish version of Savonarola, the fundamentalist monk who prophesied the fall of corrupt Rome-Babylonia, come up with the format for a democratic, constitutional Jewish state hundreds of years before one was established? Netanyahu believes he took his cue from the Venetian republic, which had democratic components not often seen in those days. Perhaps throwing off the yoke of this world made it easier for him to offer Europe in general, and the Jews in particular, an improved model of government that would only come into being centuries later. ….

My answer to Netanyahu’s opening question here would be that ‘Savonarola’ was actually a biblical prophet, and hence that it had nothing whatsoever to do with a supposed “Venetian republic”.

But Netanyahu has more to say about Savonarola as a veritable mirror-image of Abravanel. According to Todd Endelman (Comparing Jewish Societies, p. 85, n. 36, emphasis added): “Netanyahu notes the parallels between the prophecies of Savonarola and Abravanel. Often the only substantial difference is that one [Savonarola] is referring to the Florentines and Florence, while the other [Abravanel] is referring to the Jews and Jerusalem.

This means, to me, that Abravanel is the projected prophet to the Jews, Jeremiah, whilst Savonarola is an Italianised version of same: Jeremiah twice removed, so to speak. In fact Abravanel is the more accurate version of Jeremiah than is Savonarola because he, like Jeremiah, was an Israelite preaching to the Jews, and he was not physically martyred; whereas with Savonarola, supposedly a Catholic, he preached largely to the Catholics of Florence, with his life terminating (according to the tale) in a real martyrdom.

I suggest that the name ‘Savonarola’ is therefore just a corrupted or Italianised form of the Jewish name, Abravanel, or one of its variants, such as Abrabanel, Abarbanel, Barbonel, who was said to have been a “Portuguese Jewish statesman, philosopher, Bible commentator, and financier[1] of Lisbon and Venice” – supposedly belonging to a famous family of the time that claimed to trace its roots back to King David of the tribe of Judah (though Naphtali would be more appropriate in the case of my reconstructed Jeremiah). The name ‘Isaac ben Judah Abravanel’ seems to me to be a kind of generic Hebrew name, with the latter part, Abravanel,  comprising Ab (father) Rabban (priest) and El (God). It bears no direct relationship to any of Jeremiah’s names. In fact it may even be some sort of a title, since he is “commonly referred to as The Abarbanel” (““).

By de-Italianising the name, ‘Savonarola’, converting the ‘v’ to a ‘b’ and the ‘arola’ ending to a more Hebrew ‘arel’, we get Sabonarel, somewhat like Barbonel (Abravanel).

This Abravanel himself I believe to be a concoction of historians.

Due to lack of available data on the Jews of this time, supposedly, a researcher such as Benzion Netanyahu has to attempt to tie together various disparate threads. Altshuler (op. cit.) tells of the difficulties here, where “Netanyahu takes advantage of the fact that he is a biographer, and hence endowed with hindsight”:

…. Jewish historical research is short on biographies despite their importance for understanding the spirit of the times, possibly because shifting attention from a person’s work to his private life was perceived as presumptuous in Jewish tradition. Source material from which one can assemble a solid picture of the lives of great Jews is rare. Benzion Netanyahu grappled with this paucity of Jewish sources by plumbing the archives of the European monarchies under which Abravanel lived, from documents on the Inquisition to the correspondence of Christian scholars. The outcome is a comprehensive, two-part biography divided into sections on Abravanel’s life with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the annihilation of Jewish life in the Iberian Peninsula, and the evolution of Abravanel’s thinking. Combining these elements in one book allows Netanyahu to examine the relationship between the events of the time and Abravanel’s spiritual outlook. The conclusion he comes to is that Abravanel, in the face of this cruel and senseless expulsion, began to despair whether the world would ever operate in a logical and just manner. This despair led him to give up his rationalist approach to history and to base his political theories on messianic theocracy, launching the age of Jewish messianism and heralding European utopianism. Useless fire and brimstone. In the same way that Don Isaac Abravanel was an admirer of Maimonides, but had no qualms about exposing flaws in his thinking, Netanyahu lauds Abravanel’s greatness but is not afraid to point out his weaknesses. As a leader of Spanish Jewry, he failed in his primary mission: alerting the Jews to the fact that expulsion was imminent and that a safe haven should be sought elsewhere, perhaps in the Ottoman Empire, which Abravanel, as a diplomat, knew was more tolerant. Abravanel’s nonchalance proved tragic. ….

[End of quote]

The key phrase above I think is “the evolution of Abravanel’s thinking”. The original prophet Jeremiah in Jerusalem, and the destruction that he foretold of that city at the hands of the Chaldeans, and the Babylonian Exile (or series of exiles), has ‘evolved’ in the case of the generic Abravanel into a western European situation, with “the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the annihilation of Jewish life in the Iberian Peninsula”. Of Jeremiah it could largely be said, as Netanyahu writes of Abravanel, that he, “in the face of this cruel and senseless [he did warn of it, though] expulsion, began to despair whether the world would ever operate in a logical and just manner. This despair led him to give up his rationalist approach to history and to base his political theories on messianic theocracy, launching the age of Jewish messianism and heralding European [read Jewish] utopianism”.

From this ‘evolution’ of the prophet Jeremiah through the folklores of different nations and languages, we arrive at this supposedly C15th AD generic character (op. cit.):

…. Don Isaac Abravanel was born in 1437 to a wealthy and influential Jewish family in Spain that traced its ancestry back to King David. Abravanel was a courtier, diplomat and treasurer for Alfonso V of Portugal. He also served Ferdinand and Isabella, king and queen of Aragon and Castile. When he was exiled to Italy, he quickly rose from refugee to right-hand man of Ferrante I, king of Naples, and advisor to the Senate in Venice.  ….

Jeremiah, I have argued, had been an important official (as Nehemiah) of the late neo-Assyrian empire (C8th-7th’s BC).

…. [Abravanel] lost everything he had three times in a row − once when he fled to Portugal after his father converted to Christianity and the family went bankrupt; a second time in 1482, when he was accused of participating in a conspiracy of Portuguese nobles seeking to overthrow Juan II and was forced to take refuge in Spain; and a third time, in 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain.

How interesting! Because I have also argued that Jeremiah was Job, and he too, like Abravanel supposedly, had famously suffered three catastrophic losses ‘in a row’ (Job 1:13-19).

…. Thanks to his diplomatic and financial skills, [Abravanel] managed to recover each time. Latin, Portuguese, Castilian and Hebrew − he spoke them all fluently. He was a Jewish scholar, an expert in philosophy, including the works of Aristotle and the Arab philosophers Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina − and knowledgeable in the sciences of his time − magic, medicine and astrology. His biblical exegesis put him on par with Rashi and the Ramban. His ability to spot contradictions in the writings of Maimonides led Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal) to describe him as the conqueror of the Jewish Aristotelians. As the author of a messianist trilogy, the historian Zeev Aescoly called him “the greatest codifier of messianism in his day”. If there was any Jew toward the end of the medieval period and the beginning of the modern period who deserved a royal title, it was Don Isaac Abravanel. ….

But what we also find is that Abravanel’s writings also greatly influenced Christians (most appropriate if he were the biblical prophet Jeremiah). Wikipedia again:

…. Christian scholars appreciated the convenience of Abravanel’s commentaries, and often used them when preparing their own exegetical writing. This may have had something to do with Abravanel’s openness towards the Christian religion, since he worked closely with Messianic ideas found within Judaism. Because of this, Abravanel’s works were translated and distributed within the world of Christian scholarship.


His exegetical writings are set against a richly-conceived backdrop of the Jewish historical and sociocultural experience, and it is often implied that his exegesis was sculpted with the purpose of giving hope to the Jews of Spain that the arrival of the Messiah was imminent in their days. This idea distinguished him from many other philosophers of the age, who did not rely as heavily on Messianic concepts.

Due to the overall excellence and exhaustiveness of Abrabanel’s exegetical literature, he was looked to as a beacon for later Christian scholarship, which often included the tasks of translating and condensing his works. ….

[End of quote]

Altshuler continues:

…. Many of the Jews of Spain fled to Portugal, falling into a trap: Juan II closed the borders and forced them to convert. Others were herded onto ships bound for the Mediterranean. Plague epidemics broke out on the overcrowded vessels, which were then refused entry to the ports of Italy. Only in Genoa were the passengers allowed to disembark for a short time, on a dock surrounded by water on three sides. “One might have mistaken them for ghosts”, an eyewitness wrote. “So emaciated they were, so funereal, their eyes sunken in their sockets. They could be taken for dead, if not for the fact that they were still able to move”.

Cf. Lamentations 2:10: “The elders of daughter Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have thrown dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the young girls of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground”.

2:11-12: “Infants and babies faint on the streets of the city. They cry to their mother, ‘Where is bread and wine?’ As they faint like the wounded in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers’ bosom”.

4:7, 8: “Her princes …. Now their visage is blacker than soot; they are not recognized in the streets. Their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become as dry as wood”.

…. By the summer of 1492, in less than three months, the Jews of Spain, whose cultural achievements had been a beacon to the Jewish world for hundreds of years, were wiped out. ….

Netanyahu tells of Abravanel in words that could, in the main, be re-directed back to Jeremiah, but with one needing to replace all of the modern European history references with ancient Jewish history and the Chaldeans. Thus the invader from across the Alps, Charles VIII of France takes the place of Nebuchednezzar the Chaldean invading from the north; Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’ reminds (as according to Cheyne above) of king Jehoiakim of Jerusalem.

Allow me to supply the parallels, of Abravanel (in bold) with both Jeremiah and with Savonarola:

…. Jews dwell securely in all the countries of Spain, feasting on delicacies in peace and tranquility.

(Jeremiah 6:14): “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying “Peace, peace”, when there is no peace”.

…. The alarm should have sounded with the onset of the pogroms of 1391, which was followed by waves of forced conversion and reached a peak when the Inquisition was established, 11 years before the final expulsion edict. Despite centuries of oppression, the Jews of Spain dismissed the dangers and became hooked on the illusion that the pogroms were a lightening rod that would divert the hatred toward the converts and away from the Jews. ….

(Jeremiah 7:4): “Do not trust in the deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”.

…. It is an intriguing tale about a man who soars high and falls low, who watches helplessly as ships [in Jeremiah’s case, probably carts] laden with Jews sail [roll] off to their deaths, and who hobnobs with princes and dukes in the palaces of Naples and Venice.

Jeremiah mixed with high and low alike.

…. The drama reaches a pinnacle in the final chapters: Abravanel, shattered and depressed by his people’s fate, disgusted with the vanities and temptations of this world, consolidates a pessimistic view of the world as Sodom and Gomorrah, fated to be destroyed in an apocalyptic war.

Cf. Savonarola: “After Charles VIII of France [read Nebuchednezzar II the Chaldean] invaded Florence [Jerusalem] in 1494 [c. 600 BC], the ruling Medici [Jews] were overthrown and Savonarola [Jeremiah] emerged as the new leader of the city, combining in himself the role of secular leader and priest [sic]. He set up a republic in Florence. Characterizing it as a “Christian and religious Republic,” one of its first acts was to make sodomy, previously punishable by fine, into a capital offence. Homosexuality had previously been tolerated in the city, and many homosexuals from the elite now chose to leave Florence. ….

(Jeremiah 23:14): “… the prophets of Jerusalem … all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah”.

(Lamentations 4:6): “For the chastisement of my people has been greater than Sodom”.

…. His belief in the end of history is supported by intricate eschatological calculations proving that sometime between 1501 and 1513, salvation will arrive: An end-of-days war between Christians and Muslims will destroy evil Rome; from beyond the Sambatyon [read Euphrates] River a Jewish army of the Ten Tribes will arise and take revenge on the enemies of Israel; the dead will return to life, and the Messiah, now revealed, will lead the last revolution − the revolution of the Kingdom of Heaven. ….

So did Savonarola foresee a New Jerusalem?: The reward for the self-sacrifice of the Floren­tines, he promised, would be the elevation of the city of Florence to the stature of the New Jerusalem, a model of Christian purity and the capital of the millennial kingdom.

And Jeremiah?:

(Jeremiah 31:31): “The days are surely coming says the Lord, when I will make a New Covenant with the House of Israel and the house of Judah”.

(38, 40): “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when the city [of Jerusalem] shall be rebuilt … sacred to the Lord. It shall never again be uprooted or overthrown”

…. This era of geographical exploration and the sense of space conjured up by the New World, which contrasted starkly with the gloomy prospects of the Jews, prompted Abravanel to fantasize about a mythical solution for his persecuted people. In this Jewish theocracy that he predicted would arise at any moment, he envisioned a humane and democratic government in which everyone would have the right to vote; in which the judges would be chosen by the people rather than the king; in which officials would serve the public, not their superiors.

(Jeremiah 33:14-15): “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land”.

One has to ask why God would so favour the city of Florence of all places, so as to make of it a ‘New Jerusalem’. Jerusalem renewed, yes. Or Rome, the eternal city.  These two holy cities.

But Florence?

Like Jeremiah, Savonarola was a rather reluctant prophet.

He burned to engage in the work of saving souls, yet shrank for some years from entering on the priestly office. This might be ascribed to his sense of its responsibility and of the high qualifications which it demanded. No preparatory studies, no Church ceremonial, neither Pope nor prelate, he boldly averred, could make a man a priest; personal holiness, in his judgment ….

(Jeremiah 1:6): “Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a [Hebrew na’ar, usually translated as ‘boy’, but can mean] person in transition”.

As a result, Savonarola is always cast as being lambasted for being “ungainly, as well as being a poor orator”. But it was Jeremiah’s actual words that were ridiculed, with his listeners mocking his mantra: ‘Terror on every side’.

Jeremiah is usually thought to have been a priest. But I have argued that, though he was living amongst priests and frequently associated with them, he was not actually a priest himself, but a Naphtalian. He (also as Nehemiah), like Savonarola, had a disdain for both priests and prophets. And so did Abravanel (though supposedly of the Catholic clergy). Thus Netanayahu (Don Isaac Abravanel … p. 323):

An echo of Savonarola’s campaign against official Rome may be heard in the following statement of Abravanel: “All the priests of Rome and her Bishops pursue avarice and bribery and are not concerned with their religion, for the sign of heresy is upon their forehead”. (Salvations, p. 3, 4a).

Now this is again an entirely Jeremian image in relation to Unfaithful Israel (Jeremiah 3:3). “You have the forehead of a whore, you refuse to be ashamed” (the image taken up again later by St. John in Revelation 17:5).

Indeed, Savonarola called the Vatican “…. a house of prostitution where harlots sit upon the throne of Solomon and signal to passersby: whoever can pay enters and does what he wishes”.

But Jeremiah, like Savonarola, was virtually the only good man left, so he had to be chosen. “Search …. If you can find one person who acts justly and seeks truth …” (Jeremiah 5:1). For Savonarola is supposed to have claimed:

It is not the cowl that makes the monk – being not only the highest qualification for that office, but one indispensable and essential. This qualification he possessed in a pre-eminent degree. In no Church has there been many men so holy. Fra Sebastiano da Brescia, a very devout Dominican, who was vicar of the congregation of Lombardy, and for a long time his confessor, declared his belief that Savonarola had never committed – what he calls – a mortal sin, and bears the highest possible testimony to the purity of his life. ….

Perhaps his reluctance arose also from the degraded position into which those who filled it had brought the sacred office. So openly abandoned to vice were most of them at that time, that he was in the habit of saying, “If you wish your son to be a wicked man, make him a priest !” ….

Savonarola, like Jeremiah, would suffer greatly for this: “Little did this gentle spirit, lover of peace as of purity, dream, as he entered the gates of the monastery, of a day when he would exclaim with Jeremiah, “Woe is me, my mother, that thou hast borne me a man of strife, a man of contention to the whole earth!” [a reference to Jeremiah 15:10]. But so it turned out”.

So it is in a Jeremian context that we should view the apocalyptic warnings of Abravanel and Savonarola and their denunciations of the rulers and the clergy.

Early years

Savonarola’s stance against morally corrupt clergy was initially manifested in his poem on the destruction of the world entitled De Ruina Mundi (On the Downfall of the World), written at the age of 20. It was at this stage that he also began to develop his expression of moral conscience, and in 1475 his poem De Ruina Ecclesiae (On the Downfall of the Church) displayed his contempt for the Roman Curia by terming it ‘a false, proud archaic wench’.

Cf. Jeremiah’s references to Jerusalem and Israel as ‘playing the harlot’ (2:20; 3:1, 6, 8).


Finally in 1482 the Order dispatched him to Florence, the ‘city of his destiny’. He made no impression on Florence in the 1480s [supposedly because he was not a good orator], and his departure in 1487 went unnoticed. He returned to Bologna where he became ‘master of studies’.

Savonarola returned to Florence in 1490 at the behest of Count Pico della Mirandola [more likely king Josiah of Jerusalem]. There he began to preach passionately about the Last Days ….

(Jeremiah 23:20): “The anger of the Lord will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his mind. In the latter days you will understand it clearly”.

Such fiery preaching was not uncommon at the time, but a series of circumstances quickly brought Savonarola great success. The first disaster to give credibility to Savonarola’s apocalyptic message was the Medici family’s weakening grip on power owing to the French-Italian wars.

Or was it the Jews of Jeremiah’s age being troubled firstly by the Egyptians and then by the Chaldeans?

The flowering of expensive Renaissance art and culture paid for by wealthy Italian families now seemed to mock the growing misery in Italy, creating a backlash of resentment among the people.

The second disaster was the appearance of syphilis (or the “French pox”). Finally, the year 1500 was approaching, which may have brought about a mood of millennialism. In minds of many, the Last Days were impending and Savonarola was the prophet of the day.[1]

His parish church in San Marco was crowded to over-flowing during his celebration of Mass and at his sermons. Savonarola was a preacher, not a theologian. He preached that Christian life involved being good and practicing the virtues. He did not seek to create a religious group separate from the Catholic Church. Rather, he wanted to correct the transgressions of worldly popes and secularized members of the Church’s wayward Curia.

Lorenzo de Medici, the previous ruler of Florence and patron of many Renaissance artists, was also a former patron of Savonarola. Eventually, Lorenzo and his son Piero de Medici became targets of Savonarola’s preaching.

Leader of Florence

In 1497, he and his followers carried out the Bonfire of the Vanities. They sent boys from door to door collecting items associated with moral laxity: mirrors, cosmetics, lewd pictures, pagan books, immoral sculptures (which he wanted to be replaced by statues of the saints and modest depictions of biblical scenes), gaming tables, chess pieces, lutes and other musical instruments, fine dresses, women’s hats, and the works of immoral and ancient poets, and burnt them all in a large pile in the Piazza della Signoria of Florence.[2] Many fine Florentine Renaissance artworks were lost in Savonarola’s notorious bonfires — including paintings by Sandro Botticelli, which he is alleged to have thrown into the fires himself.[3]

Florence soon became tired of Savonarola because of the city’s continual political and economic miseries partially derived from Savonarola’s opposition to trading and making money. When a Franciscan preacher challenged him to a trial by fire in the city centre and he declined, his following began to dissipate.

During his Ascension Day sermon on May 4, 1497, bands of youths rioted, and the riot became a revolt: dancing and singing taverns reopened, and men again dared to gamble publicly.

Excommunication and execution

On May 13, 1497, the rigorous Father Savonarola was excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI, and in 1498, Alexander demanded his arrest and execution. On April 8, a crowd attacked the Convent of San Marco. A bloody struggle ensued, during which several of Savonarola’s guards and religious supporters were killed. Savonarola surrendered along with Fra Domenico da Pescia and Fra Silvestro, his two closest associates. Savonarola was faced with charges such as heresy, uttering prophecies, sedition, and other crimes, called religious errors by the Borgia pope.

During the next few weeks all three were tortured on the rack, the torturers sparing only Savonarola’s right arm in order that he might be able to sign his confession. All three signed confessions, Savonarola doing so sometime prior to May 8. On that day he completed a written meditation on the Miserere mei, Psalm 50, entitled Infelix ego, in which he pleaded with God for mercy for his physical weakness in confessing to crimes he believed he did not commit. On the day of his execution, May 23, 1498, he was still working on another meditation, this one on Psalm 31, entitled Tristitia obsedit me.[4]

On the day of his execution he was taken out to the Piazza della Signoria along with Fra Silvestro and Fra Domenico da Pescia. The three were ritually stripped of their clerical vestments, degraded as “heretics and schismatics“, and given over to the secular authorities to be burned. The three were hanged in chains from a single cross and an enormous fire was lit beneath them. They were thereby executed in the same place where the “Bonfire of the Vanities” had been lit, and in the same manner that Savonarola had condemned other criminals himself during his own reign in Florence. Jacopo Nardi, who recorded the incident in his Istorie della città di Firenze, wrote that his executioner lit the flame exclaiming, “The one who wanted to burn me is now himself put to the flames.” Luca Landucci, who was present, wrote in his diary that the burning took several hours, and that the remains were several times broken apart and mixed with brushwood so that not the slightest piece could be later recovered, as the ecclesiastical authorities did not want Savonarola’s followers to have any relics for a future generation of the rigorist preacher they considered a saint. The ashes of the three were afterwards thrown in the Arno beside the Ponte Vecchio.[5]

Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince, also witnessed and wrote about the execution. Subsequently, Florence was governed along more traditional republican lines, until the return of the Medici in 1512. ….

According to Kirsch (op. cit., pp. 166-169):

…. So it was that a sermonizer might seek to set his audience afire with ter­rors and yearnings and end up in the flames of his own making. Such was the fate of a man who has been called “a martyr of prophecy,” Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), perhaps the single most famous (or notorious) [167] of the apocalyptic radicals. …. Florence was destined to be the New Jerusalem, or so Savonarola believed and preached, and he saw it as his divine mission to make it so. At a moment in history when Europe was afflicted by “presages, phantoms and astrological conjunctions of dreadful import,” as one contemporary chronicler put it, the Florentines were a ready and willing audience.”

Like the author of Revelation, Savonarola was a self-appointed soldier in a culture war. The Dominican friar detested what he called “the perversities and the extreme evil of these blind peoples amongst whom vir­tue is reduced to zero and vice triumphs on every hand”… – that is, the worldly ways of life and art that are seen today as the glory of the Renaissance. And, just as John denounced the pleasures and treasures of Roman paganism (“Cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet …”) … Savonarola condemned the opulent lives of the Roman Catholic clergy. “You have been to Rome,” he declared. “Well, then, you must know something of the lives of these priests. They have courtesans, squires, horses, ­dogs. Their houses are filled with carpets, silks, perfumes, servants. Their pride fills the world. Their avarice matches their pride. All they do, they do for money.” ….

Savonarola, again like the author of Revelation, was a gifted and powerful preacher, and his sermons “ignited a fireball of religious panic that heated even the city’s most urbane minds,” according to cultural histori­an Robin Barnes. …. His public lectures on the book of Revelation were so popular, in fact, that he was forced to move to ever-larger quarters in order to accommodate the crowds. They took to heart his warning that the end of the world was near: “torrents of blood,” “a terrible famine,” and “a fierce pestilence” awaited the sinners. …. And they surely thrilled at the sight of a seer in action: “My reasons for announcing these scourges and calamities are founded on the Word of God,” ranted Savonarola in one of his white-hot sermons. “1 have seen a sign in the heavens. Not a cross this time, but a sword. It’s the Lord’s terrible swift sword which will strike the earth!” ….

Above all, Savonarola commanded his congregation to forgo the plea­sures of the flesh in anticipation of the Day of Judgment. “Sodomy is Flor­ence’s besetting sin,” declared Savonarola, who complained that “a young boy cannot walk in the streets without of falling into evil hands.”‘ …. But he was no less punishing when it came to the sexual excesses of women, real [168] or imagined. “Big flabby hunks of fat you are with your dyed hair, your high-rouged cheeks and eyelids smeared with charcoal,” he railed. “Your perfumes poison the air of our streets and parks. Not content with being the concubines of laymen and debauching young boys, you are running after priests and monks in order to catch them in your nets and involve them in your filthy intrigues.” …. And he laid the same charge against the pope and the clergy: “Come here, you blasphemy of a church!” he sermon­ized, making good use of the catchphrases of Revelation. “Your lust has made of you a brazenfaced whore. Worse than beasts are you, who have made yourself into an unspeakable monster!” …. ‘

The most remarkable and enduring moment in Savonarola’s war on the humanism and high art of the Renaissance was the so-called Bonfire of the Vanities, a pyre on which he urged the penitent men and women of Florence to toss their finery and frippery, wigs and gowns, perfumes and face powders, mirrors and rouge pots, dice and playing cards, and “certain musical instruments whose tone was deemed to be of an exci­tant nature.” …. Some of the fuel for the bonfire can be described as por­nography or worse “marble statues of lewd posture, mechanized dolls of impure gesturing, as well as all articles apt or calculated to excite lust” …. The reward for the self-sacrifice of the Floren­tines, he promised, would be the elevation of the city of Florence to the stature of the New Jerusalem, a model of Christian purity and the capital of the millennial kingdom.

Like so many other apocalyptic preachers, Savonarola saw no mean­ingful distinction between religion and politics. Indeed, his vision of the end-times was deeply rooted in the soil of realpolitik. Thus, for example, he condemned the papacy in Rome on moral grounds: “They have turned their churches into stalls for prostitutes,” he declared, “1 shall turn them into stalls for hogs and horses because these would be less offensive to God.”‘ …. And his moral revulsion prompted him to side with the French king, Charles VIII, who was contesting with the pope for political sover­eignty over Italy. Nor was Savonarola troubled by the bloodshed and chaos that he invited and even instigated. When Pope Alexander reportedly tried to make a separate peace with Savonarola by offering to raise him to the rank of cardinal, whose badge of office was a scarlet miter, the pope badly misjudged the temper of the true believer. “I want nothing but what you, O Lord, have given to your saints, name­ly death,” Savonarola retorted. “A red hat, yes, but red with blood – that’s what I wish for.”….

Savonarola may have won over the guilt-ridden and panic-stricken souls who rallied to his potent sermons, but he also managed to alienate those among the wealthy and powerful of Florence who sided with the pope and who, not incidentally, were offended and embarrassed by Savonarola’s denunciation of their riches and privileges. “Fra Girolamo either sees spooks,” cracked one of his adversaries, referring to him by his title and first name, “or he drinks too much.” …. Savonarola’s ene­mies in Florence, acting in concert with the pope in Rome, arranged for his arrest, torture, and trial, and he was condemned on charges of heresy and schism.

“I separate you from the Church Militant and Triumphant,” said the bishop who conducted the formal ritual of excommunication. “From the Church Militant, not from the Church Triumphant,” retorted the defiant Savonarola. “That is not within your competence.”….

The “proto-messianic republic” that Savonarola founded in Florence 1asted only three years.” ….On May 24, 1498, Savonarola was stripped of monk’s robe, his head was shaved to destroy his tonsure, and he was by the neck from a gibbet. Then his broken body was put to the flames in the same crowded and clamorous public square where he had once kindled his own dangerous fires.

“Prophet,” taunted an ironist in the noisy mob, “now is the time for a miracle!” ….

[End of quotes]

“Tell him,” said he to a deputation who, at the instigation of Lorenzo – determined to silence Savonarola by fair means or foul – came urging him to leave Florence, “Tell him that he is the first man in the city, and I am but a poor friar; nevertheless, it is he who has to go from hence, and I who have to stay; tell him that he should repent of his sins, for God has ordained the punishment of him and his.” So it happened, I may remark, not long afterwards when the house of the Medici fell, and the sceptre departed from their hands.

Jeremiah 21:1-8: “This is the Word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, when King Zedekiah sent to him Pashhur son of Malchiah and the priest Zephaniah son of Maaseiah, saying, ‘Please inquire of the Lord on our behalf, for King Nebuchedrezzar of Babylon is making war against us …”.

Then Jeremiah said to them: ‘Thus you shall say to Zedekiah: Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel; I am going to turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands and with which you are fighting against the king of Babylon and against the Chaldeans who are besieging you outside the walls; and I will bring them together into the center of this city. I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and mighty arm, in anger, in fury, and in great wrath. And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both human beings and animals; they shall die of a great pestilence. Afterward, says the Lord, I will give King Zedekiah of Judah, and his servants, and the people in this city – those who survive the pestilence, sword, and famine – into the hands of King Nebuchedrezzar of Babylon, into the hands of their enemies, into the hands of those who seek their lives. He shall strike them down with the edge of the sword; he shall not pity them, or spare them, or have compassion”.

Vol. 6, Chapter IX (Cont’d) – 76. Girolamo Savonarola


Ecce gladius Domini super terram cito et velociter.

Jeremiah has many references to the sword of slaughter (2:30; 4:10; 5:12; 9:16; 12:12, etc, etc)

His message was the prophet’s cry, “Who shall abide the day of His coming and who shall stand when He appeareth?”

I could not endure any longer the wickedness of the blinded peoples of Italy. Virtue I saw despised everywhere and vices exalted and held in honor. With great warmth of heart, I made daily a short prayer to God that He might release me from this vale of tears. ‘Make known to me the way,’ I cried, ‘the way in which I should walk for I lift up my soul unto Thee,’ and God in His infinite mercy showed me the way, unworthy as I am of such distinguishing grace.

The clergy he arraigned for their greed of prebends and gold and their devotion to outer ceremonies rather than to the inner life of the soul.

Jeremiah 22:17): “But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practising oppression and violence”.

Portraying the insincerity of the clergy, he said: —

In these days, prelates and preachers are chained to the earth by the love of earthly things. The care of souls is no longer their concern. They are content with the receipt of revenue. The preachers preach to please princes and to be praised by them. They have done worse. They have not only destroyed the Church of God. They have built up a new Church after their own pattern. Go to Rome and see! In the mansions of the great prelates there is no concern save for poetry and the oratorical art. Go thither and see! Thou shalt find them all with the books of the humanities in their hands and telling one another that they can guide mens’ souls by means of Virgil, Horace and Cicero … The prelates of former days had fewer gold mitres and chalices and what few they possessed were broken up and given to relieve the needs of the poor. But our prelates, for the sake of obtaining chalices, will rob the poor of their sole means of support.

Jeremiah 22:13, 14, 17: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages; who says, “I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms”, and who cuts out windows for it, panelling it with cedar, and painting it with vermillion … your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practising oppression and violence”.

The inscription on the heavenly sword well represents the style of Savonarola’s preaching. It was impulsive, pictorial, eruptive, startling, not judicial and instructive. And yet it made a profound impression on men of different classes. Pico della Mirandola the elder has described its marvellous effect upon himself. On one occasion, when he announced as his text Gen_6:17, “Behold I will bring the flood of waters upon the earth,” Pico said he felt a cold shudder course through him, and his hair, as it were, stand on end.

Jeremiah 47:2: “See, waters are rising out of the north and shall become an overflowing torrent; they shall overflow the land and all that fills it, the city and those who live in it”.

Savonarola’s confidence in his divine appointment to be the herald of special communications from above found expression not only from the pulpit but was set forth more calmly in two works, the Manual of Revelations, 1495, and a Dialogue concerning Truth and Prophecy, 1497. The latter tract with a number of Savonarola’s sermons were placed on the Index. In the former, the author declared that for a long time he had by divine inspiration foretold future things but, bearing in mind the Saviour’s words, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs,” he had practised reserve in such utterances. He expressed his conception of the office committed to him, when he said, “The Lord has put me here and has said to me, ‘I have placed thee as a watchman in the centre of Italy … that thou mayest hear my words and announce them,’” Eze_3:17.

Jeremiah 1:18: “And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land – against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land”.

The question arises whether Savonarola was a genuine prophet or whether he was self-deluded, mistaking for the heated imaginations of his own religious fervor, direct communications from God. Alexander VI. made Savonarola’s “silly declaration of being a prophet” one of the charges against him.

Jeremiah 29:27: ‘So now why have you not rebuked Jeremiah … who plays the prophet for you?”

So we may have to review most radically Savonarola’s supposed legacy regarding the Church, and the papacy, and his supposed anti-culturalism, such as “paintings by Botticelli and books by Petrarch and Boccaccio were also pitched into the flames …”.

In short, it did not happen.

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