Savonarola on images
Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) was a zealous Dominican preacher and reformer. Born into an aristocratic family in Ferrara, he seems to have first preached in Florence in 1482, but his real impact began to be felt after his return there around eight years later. His sermons against the sinfulness of his contemporaries and the secular forces he believed were turning them from religion were enormously popular. He railed against the excesses of vanity, luxury, and the pagan-tinged views and “modern” art he saw being advanced by humanist patrons and leading artists. His followers built “bonfires of the vanities” in which luxury items, and some books and works of art were burned. Yet he also sought to reform the church of corruption. Many in Florence believed him to have a gift of prophecy. Following the expulsion of the Medici, he was de facto leader of the republic. However, his complaints against corruption (and suspicion of heresy) put in him conflict with the pope. He and two of his followers were condemned and hanged in the public square and his body burned.
This sermon was delivered during Lent in 1494.
Children and women respond like plants do, with their bodies, and through physical stimulation. Paintings in churches are their books, and we should provide for them better than the pagans did. The Egyptians did not allow indecent figures to be painted. The first thing we should do is remove the dishonest figures, and the crude scenes that make people laugh shall not be painted. And in the churches no one should paint unless they are good masters who paint honest things. If they paint the Virgin, she has to be painted with all decency, as she really was.
Love is like a painter. The works of a good painter so charm men that, in contemplating them, they remain suspended, and sometimes to such an except that it seems they have been put in an ecstasy and have been taken outside of themselves, and seem to forget themselves. This [is] what the love of Jesus Christ does when it is in the soul….Ask a man who is in love with a woman what love paints in the chamber of his imagination. He will respond, “Her face, her eyes, her movements, her clothes,” and other such things. And love paints them so well that all his powers remain suspended before these pictures and he is not interested in thinking of anything else, or of contemplating anything other than those pictures….If carnal love produces such effects, spiritual love, that is love of Jesus Christ, produces even more powerful ones.
Translation: Renaissance Art Reconsidered: An Anthology of Primary Sources, eds. Carol M. Richardson, Kim W. Woods, and Michael W. Franklin (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), p. 313. Copyright © 2007 Blackwell Publishing. Reproduced with permission of Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Original: Girolamo Savonarola, Prediche sopra Ezechiele, ed. R. Ridolfi (Rome: Belardetti, 1955), 1: 357–8.
Translation: Alexander Nagel, “Gifts for Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna,” Art Bulletin 79 (1997), p. 653.
Original: Girolamo Savonarola, “Sermoni sopra il salmo ‘Quan bonus,’” in Sermoni e prediche di F. Girolamo Savonarola (Prato, 1846), pp. 434–5.