The Mission of Savonarola
This lecture is from the lecture series entitled, Answers to Universal Questions and Life Questions through Anthroposophy. It is lecture 5 of 19 lectures given by Rudolf Steiner at various cities throught Austria and Germany in the years 1908–1909.
27 October 1908, Berlin
Translated by Hanna von Maltitz
The word “mission” is perhaps not quite the correct term for our examination of this extraordinary phenomenon at the end of the fifteenth century. Perhaps regarding connections to Savonarola's personality could urge us to say these links would be far more important than defining the mission of Savonarola. This other aspect could come to the fore as soon as members of our Anthroposophic world-view and world movement make themselves familiar with the being of Savonarola because out of his actions and characteristics various things can be learnt. In a being such as Savonarola's we may see the dawn of a new time and up to what point the development of Christianity had reached by the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century. It is exactly clear what kind of activity was not effective. We can see what kind of activity was introduced into the development of mankind.
It is necessary to show how certain one-sided influences regarding the empowering and the presentation of Christianity became unsuitable. It didn't take long — with some single thorough strokes we would like to regard Savonarola's actions. Beside Savonarola we can place another figure, quite different in nature, of a Dominican monk. This monk of the monastery from which Savonarola's serious speeches were published, had painted the most wonderful, delicate paintings: Fra Angelico da Fiesole During this dawn of a new age it indicated how Christianity revealed itself in two gestures. This is the proof of how Christianity could be expressed through the soul at this time. This is one way, but the other way — and this is Savonarola's way — is how Christianity could be lived through during this time. One could, if one was such a person as Savonarola, with certain confidence, a strong will and a definite clear understanding, act as he did. Still comparatively young he believed that within such an Order, where the real rules of the Order should be fulfilled, a true life in Christianity could be experienced. If one still had what Savonarola had, the deepest moral courage of conviction, one could direct one's focus to everything happening in the world. One could compare Christianity with events happening in Rome, with the actual worldly life of the Pope, the Cardinals, or how it expressed itself in the wonderful creations of Michelangelo! One could observe how in all the catholic churches Mass was read according to the strictest Cult, giving people the feeling that they couldn't live without the Cult. One could also see that whoever came under the robe, the stole and chasuble, could in their civil lives honour a liberality but that this liberality which was striven for, seen in today's eyes, is by contrast mere children's games. One can take that which from a certain aspect had been striven for as a tendency, and see it become a reality up to the highest steps of the altar.
One could at that time connect the higher worlds in a glowing belief that was absolutely democratic: domination of the gods without any human rulers! This was the pull of Savonarola's heart. The Medici could be admired for all they had done for Italy and for all they had brought to Italy, but one could also, like Savonarola, see the great De Medici, of Lorenzo de Medici, as tyrants. Imagine being Lorenzo de Medici and considering allowing such a quarrelsome Dominican to preach as he wished. Lorenzo de Medici was a distinguished thinker. He could grasp various things, because things should be considered from both sides. He had drawn Savonarola to Florence but Savonarola went against the grain from the start in considering Lorenzo as his patron. When Savonarola became Prior of the monastery, he didn't even consider making the expected visit of thanks. When it was explained to him that Lorenzo had called him to Florence, he said: Do you believe that Lorenzo de Medici was the one who called Savonarola to Florence? No, it was God who called Savonarola to this monastery in Florence!
As a distinguished man Lorenzo donated something to the monastery and one can imagine Savonarola being calmed by what had been given to the monastery. However he gave all these gifts away and announced that the Dominicans were capable of regarding their vow of poverty and to gather no treasures.
Who were actually the enemies of Savonarola? All those who created the configuration and the reign on the physical plane. Nothing disconcerted Savonarola. He went straight ahead. He said: There is a Christendom. Its actual form is in fact unknown to people. The church disfigures it. It must disappear and be replaced by a new form which would reveal the true Christian spirit. — He continued preaching these proclamations. Initially his preaching was with great difficulty because he could only utter the words from his throat with great effort. However he became an orator whose following grew continuously, whose oratory talents increased ever more.
The ruling powers were initially liberal; they didn't want to oppose him. It was an Augustinian monk who felt obliged to deliver a speech which would annihilate Savonarola's power. His speech was delivered under the theme: “It doesn't befit us to know the day and hour when the divine Creator got involved with the world.” This Augustinian monk spoke in fiery words and one could say, being cognisant of the steams flooding Christian life, the entire declaration of belief of the Dominicans domain now opposed that of the Augustinians. — Savonarola prepared for battle and spoke about the same theme: “It befits us well to know things are not as they seem. It befits us to change them and know when the day and hour arrives.” The Florentine crowds cheered like they had cheered the Augustinian monk. He wasn't only considered a danger in Florence but also in Rome and in the whole of Italy. After the unbelievable agony of torture and falsified evidence he was condemned to be burnt at the stake.
Thus Savonarola lived while at the same time another Dominican monk painted a Christianity which hardly exists in the physical world. When we search for a specific word in our thoughts which was spoken by an extraordinary man regarding Savonarola, namely Jacob Burkhardt, the famous Renaissance historian, we can develop the opinion that life was so extensive in Italy that you stood directly before secularisation of the church, which meant the church turning into a worldly organisation, then we may conclude that Savonarola was the everlasting conscience of Christianity.
What caused the ineffectiveness of Savonarola despite his fiery entrance into Christianity? He is a historical figure. This was the cause: In this dawning of a new age and in this dusk of the church where Savonarola instilled his Christianity, something was introduced which worked against the external organisation of Christianity. This test proves it, not even such a figure as Savonarola could be produced again in Christianity. The spiritual-scientifically striving person should learn from this that there is something else necessary, something objective, which makes it possible for the deep springs of esoteric Christianity to be exhausted. Such an instrument can only be Anthroposophy. The figure of Savonarola is like a distant sign lit up in the future of what Anthroposophists should be learning, not through the means which one believed at the time, to re-discover Christianity, but with the means of anthroposophical spiritual science. As Anthroposophist one can learn much from this figure.