| Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages|
|by George Hodges|
| An excellent introduction to the history of the church through portraits of twenty of the most important saints and heroes of the faith from the third century A.D. to the time of the Reformation. Includes Cyprian, Athanasius, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, Benedict, Greg-ory the Great, Columba, Charlemagne, Hildebrand, Anselm, Bernard, Becket, Langton, Dominic, Francis, Wycliffe, Hus, and Savonarola. Ages 11-14 |
 THE monastery of San Marco in Florence faces a quiet
square, and is adorned with the paintings of Fra
Angelico. There is the picture of the two disciples
who invite the Lord to come and be their guest, and the
picture of the brother with his finger on his lips in
symbol of silence. In every cell is painted a Madonna,
or a crucifix, or the figure of an angel, to help the
prayers of the friars of St. Dominic. In one cell,
somewhat apart from the others, meant for the prior,
are treasured a desk at which Savonarola wrote and a
chair in which he sat, and a portrait of him hangs upon
Savonarola had intended to be a doctor, like his
grandfather; though even as a lad he was interested in
theology, and looked
 out upon the world with serious eyes. At the age of
nineteen, he was deeply in love with a girl whose
parents would not allow her to marry him. His family,
they said, was not so good as hers. This made him more
serious still. He had never cared for the pleasures of
society; now he hated them. He wrote an essay about
this time, entitled, "Contempt of the World."
It was a bad world; that was plain even to a young man
of nineteen. What Hus saw in the streets of Prague,
Savonarola saw in the streets of Ferrara. There were
pride and oppression, vice and drunkenness, men
fighting with sharp swords and women looking on
applauding, and no peace or order. Savonarola
separated himself from it. He entered a monastery and
became a Dominican. Presently he was sent to live in
Florence with the brothers of San Marco.
The ruler of Florence was Lorenzo, called "the
Magnificent." Under his
 government all bad things were growing in the city like
weeds on a neglected farm. Lorenzo was intent on power
and money, and cared little how he got them. With all
his splendid titles, his robes of state and his palace,
he was like the political bosses, who to-day get
control of cities, throw open all the doors of
wickedness, and tax honest citizens for their own
It was found that the new brother at San Marco could
preach. Not very well, it seemed at first, when he
took commonplace texts and treated them in commonplace
ways. But one day, as he spoke in the pulpit
concerning the Day of Judgment, a sudden inspiration
came upon him. He denounced the sins of men in the
light of the flames of that awful day of punishment,
till his hearers wept and trembled. Afterwards they
said that they saw a halo gleaming round his head.
And then, as he preached again, he had
 a vision of a flaming sword, and heard voices promising
the mercy of God to the faithful and the wrath of God
to the unfaithful, and, as he looked, the sword was
lifted against the earth amidst the flash of lightnings
and the crash of thunders.
With this new eloquence, in the spirit of the Day of
Judgment, Savonarola attacked the city of government of
Florence. He took his texts out of the Bible, and
mainly from the prophets of the Old Testament, but in
every text he succeeded in finding something against
Lorenzo the Magnificent.
He was made prior of the monastery. It was a bold
election, not only because some of the chief citizens
had protested against his sermons, but because Lorenzo
was the great patron of San Marco. The monastery had
been rebuilt by his father, and he himself had enriched
and adorned it. Suppose, now, that the richest, most
generous, and most influential person in
 the parish is at the same time an unscrupulous
political boss and a man of evil life; what shall the
parson do? That was the question which confronted the
new prior, and he answered by continuing his sermons
When Lorenzo lay upon his deathbed, he sent for
Savonarola. He knew that there was one fearless and
honest minister in Florence, and he wished his counsel
in the preparation of his soul. Savonarola said, "You
must repent, and trust in the mercy of God." To this
Lorenzo assented. "You must give up the wealth which
you have taken by dishonest means." To this also,
after some hesitation, he assented. "You
must restore the liberties of Florence." Then Lorenzo
turned his face to the wall, and made no answer, and
the prior in silence came away.
The liberties of Florence were restored by Savonarola.
In the confusion which followed the death of Lorenzo,
 was chosen as the natural leader of the decent
citizens. The king of France was fighting the king of
Naples. Down he came with his army, and entered
Florence; and out he went again, by reason of the moral
strength of Savonarola. When the king threatened the
city, saying, "I will sound my trumpets," it was in the
spirit of Savonarola that Capponi answered, "Then we
will ring our bells."
Thus Savonarola prevailed in Florence. He drew up a
new plan of government by which the magistrates were
bound to the fear of God and the purification of
manners, and to promote the public welfare in
preference to private interests. Jesus Christ was
solemnly proclaimed the king of Florence. People put
off their gay clothes, and dressed soberly. Hymns took
the place of the popular songs. One day, men and women
brought their "vanities," their fine apparel, their
adornments, and burned them in a great bonfire, while
 Dominicans of San Marco, hand in hand, danced about the
flames, to the glory of God.
But there were enemies. There were many people whose
hearts were not touched by the preaching of Savonarola,
and who disliked all this new plainness and simplicity.
They honestly hated hymns, and desired the open doors
of Lorenzo's time. There were also the Franciscans,
who were jealous of the popularity of the Dominicans.
And there was the pope.
The very name of the family to which the pope of that
day belonged, is a synonym of shameless evil. He was a
Borgia. He had abandoned all righteousness, and was
suspected of having abandoned all Christian faith as
well. He was a criminal and a heretic, and yet the
pope. Savonarola denounced him, as he had denounced
But the pope was possessed of all the power of great
wealth and great position.
 He could bribe with one hand, and curse with the other.
Powerful as he was, he yet saw that it was not safe to
let himself be publicly abused by popular preachers.
There were too many people who would listen to such
preaching eagerly. The Middle Ages were drawing to a
close. Already new ideas were beginning to stir the
minds of men. The fall of Constantinople at the hands
of the Turks, in 1453, had sent fugitive Greek scholars
into Europe, and men were beginning to read the Greek
Testament, with new understanding. The discovery of
America, in 1492, was disclosing the greatness of the
world; the invention of printing was making it possible
for plain men to read books for themselves, and make up
their own minds. The invention of powder was putting a
new strength into the arms of peasants. The protests of
the Albigenses, of the Lollards, of the Hussites, were
 increasing unrest in the face of the sins of churchmen.
Reforming councils were deposing even popes. Alexander
Borgia was afraid to allow Savonarola to preach his
fierce sermons. People were so interested in them that
they crowded the cathedral before the sun was up, on
preaching days, each with his lighted candle.
Then all the enemies fell upon the prior. The pope
excommunicated him. The Franciscans proposed a trial
by fire, according to an ancient custom: a Franciscan
on one side, and a Dominican on the other, were to walk
across the wide square between rows of blazing fagots,
and the one who got through safely would be proved to
be in the right. The rows of fagots were built, and
all Florence was there to see. But the Franciscans,
though it was their champion who would not venture,
contrived to put the blame on the Dominicans.
Savonarola and his friars,
 as they marched back to San Marco, were hooted and
stoned. It was evident that his righteous power was
The monastery was stormed by a mob. The doors were
broken down; citizens and friars fought together. Fra
Domenico, Savonarola's faithful friend, defended the
prior with a huge candlestick, which he wielded like a
club. But Savonarola was arrested, and Domenico with
him, and another also, named Silvestro. They were
tried, as the manner was, by torture, and condemned.
"I separate thee," said the bishop, "from the Church
militant and from the Church triumphant." "Not from
the Church triumphant," said the martyr: "That is
beyond thy power."
A bronze tablet in the pavement of the great square of
Florence shows where Savonarola and his friends were
first hanged and then burned for their attack upon the
wickedness of the world and of the Church.
 Thus passes the procession of our twenty saints and
heroes. The list ends with a martyr, as it began. And
every man came into acquaintance with difficulty and
danger. They might have lived in peace and comfort
like their neighbors, but they had a strong longing to
do good. They entered with great joy into the old war
between wrong and right. That war is as new as it is
old: it is going on in our neighborhood to-day.
Indeed, we are all enlisted in it, on one side or the
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