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‘Savonarola Preaching Against Prodigality’: A man of the cloth or charismatic cult leader?

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‘Savonarola Preaching Against Prodigality’ by Ludwig von Langenmantel

As I strolled through the Regina Quick Center of the Arts, the first piece I noticed was the giant “Savonarola Preaching Against Prodigality” by Ludwig von Langenmantel, an oil canvas painting looming above the stairs by the gift shop.

I’ve always been interested in Renaissance, Gothic and Romantic art, the latter of which this piece of art was created. Perhaps I was so drawn to it because it reminded me of the works I saw when roaming through the Vatican in the summer of 2016.

The focal point of the piece is Girolamo Savonarola, who the piece is named after, pointing towards the sky as if he is God reaching out to Adam, preaching before a “bonfire of vanities.” His followers (and critics) flock around him to hear what he has to say about the impending doom and the fall of the church.

Now, before analyzing the piece, I had to give myself a little history lesson to truly understand what the painting depicted.

A man with humble beginnings, Savonarola abandoned his family to become a Dominican friar. As a friar, he moved to Florence, where he served as the master of novices in the convent of San Marco.

Savonarola was more austere than his brothers in the convent, whom he often conflicted with, making him move from city to city. When preaching in the 1480s he found evidence of an Apocalypse and called for repentance. In the summer of 1490, Savonarola returned to Florence began to attack powerful factions and leaders of the world, Italy and the city. It was the fear of others that led to Savonarola’s rise, both politically and spiritually, in the merchant city of Firenze.

His sermons of destruction came to Florence during a crucial time. Lorenzo de’Medici, the de facto leader of Florence, was dying. Savonarola blessed Lorenzo on his deathbed, but his blessing could not save the Medicis from being expelled. He prophesied a great flood and a ruler from the north who would try to reform the church. When Charles VIII of France invaded, Savonarola’s prophecies seemed to be proving true.

Lorenzo’s son, Piero, failed to defend Florence, and the Medicis had to leave. Like a charismatic cult leader, Savonarola was Lorenzo’s successor in Florence government and reformed both politics and religion in the city.

Whoever was opposed to creating Florence into his image, Savonarola made them his enemies, condemning them and calling them tiepidi, the “worse.” The pope and Savonarola’s friends ended up denouncing him as a man who bought his office and an atheist.

In the summer of 1497, five men were accused of trying to restore the Medicis in Florence. When they were brought to judgement, Savonarola gave them no real help. The sentence was passed and the men were executed, thus making Savonarola an enemy of the Medicis.

Savonarola burned books and destroyed art, horrifying the Vatican and his own followers. He deceived himself into believing he was a prophet, similar to Moses. This, in the end, led to his own downfall.

Argument raged over Savonarola’s authority, as the pope threatened to excommunicate Florence. The government acted and Savonarola and his main supporters were arrested. Savonarola could not withstand torture and he admitted to never having any visions. In 1498 he was frocked, hanged and burned. His ashes were thrown into the Arno river, but some of his followers collected the ashes, his vestments, hair shirt and pieces of the gallows he died on. Sainthood was not in Savonarola’s future, however. He was no Thomas More by any stretch of the imagination and the fact that he was up for sainthood boggles my mind. Imagine Saint Jim Jones. You can’t, right? Perhaps comparing Savonarola to Jones is a bit of a stretch, but his charismatic appearance and cult following are enough to suggest that he was not a pure man of the cloth, but in fact an ambitious man who found fertile ground in the fearful Florence republic.

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Jim Jones vs. Savonarola….uncanny.

Perhaps not so ironically, after his death, a cult was created under his name.

Langenmantel depicts Savonarola with as much darkness as the friar’s prophecies. Hooded like some type of dark lord, Savonarola’s eyes are rolled upwards, almost giving him the appearance of a man possessed. What’s even more eerie is the skull Savonarola seems to be holding close along with his dangling rosary. One of the first things I wondered when looking at the painting was whose skull it was. The eyes of the skull appear to be looking at Savonarola. Perhaps this is symbolic to the friar’s own death.

The women in the painting appear to be fearful, some from the nobility and others who look like the working class. The men, on the other hand, look skeptical. These depictions could just be a product of the times. Noble women did not necessarily work, so they were thought to have more time to focus on religious beliefs, while men focused more on politics. Noblemen at the time looked at each other with power in their eyes and similarly to Savonarola, they could fall just as quickly as they rose.

Reading about the history of Savonarola and his eventual downfall, I began noticing a lot of foreshadowing within the painting. As the painting was created centuries after the life and death of Savonarola, Langenmantel could easily symbolize his eventual execution.

To the left of him, most of the people appear to be at the will of Savonarola’s words, hanging on to every word. While those on the far right appear to be more skeptical of what he’s saying. If looking at the scene from left to right, it’s almost as if Langenmantel is predicting past, present and future. After all, it would be the critics of Savonarola who would pass his judgement.

Behind Savonarola, to his left, there appears to be someone in the back mimicking him. Could this be Langenmantel’s way of further foreshadowing the friar’s death? Just as Savonarola is pointing to the heavens, speaking of an Apocalyptic downfall, the onlooker in the back could be pointing to the friar’s downfall. Or, perhaps Langenmantel is telling the viewer that there are men like Savonarola everywhere; past, present and future.

One of the other things I found curious was the pile of riches at Savonarola’s feet. Throughout his life, Savonarola refused riches and all earthly pleasures. He prodded his followers to rid of material possessions and live for God. His bonfires of vanities pushed people to minimalism and living lives not defined by property. The way that they are piled at his feet, though, make it appear less holy, and more holier than thou. It’s as if Savonarola is an idol or some type of Firenze rockstar. The items seem to be at his disposal and the effect of their placement make it look like he’s standing above them, as if it were a mountain.

It is this pile of riches the part of the piece that I believe to be the most telling. Instead of getting rid of their possessions, Savonarola’s followers appear to be throwing them at his feet. It is on these riches that he rose and on those riches that he would fall. At the top of the pile appears to be a chalice of sorts knocked over, underneath it a material of red, almost making it look as if wine is being spilt. On the floor, red cloth spreads out, like a pool of blood. Blood of the past and future. The five men who were executed with no help from Savonarola was the blood of the past. The friar was not innocent and some could even argue that their blood was on his hands. As we know, Savonarola would face torture and death, hence, the blood of the future.

One of the women in the painting kneels before Savonarola, holding above her head a crown, as if presenting it to him. If Savonarola preaches about a “bonfire of vanities” why isn’t she tossing it into the pile? Instead, charismatic-cult-leader-esque man he is, is doted upon by his followers. It’s as if giving their livelihoods away to Savonarola will ensure their spot in heaven.

Being a bit of a Renaissance buff, when reading about Savonarola’s life, I found his ties with the Medicis somewhat ironic. He blessed Lorenzo, but helped in expelling the rest of the Medicis in Florence. The Medicis hated him for it, but like many, the Medicis were not exempt from believing in religious prophecies. Catherine de’Medici came to mind. Catherine ended up marrying King Henry II of France after becoming one of the last of the Medicis, an orphan.

Catherine became a fan of Nostradamus, famous for his prophecies. She supported him so much that she made him a Counselor and Physician for the royal household.

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Catherine de’Medici and Nostradamus

The Medicis hated Savonarola and spat on his name along with his prophecies, yet one of their most powerful and notable members heavily believed in a man known for prophecies.

I digress…

Overall, I found Langenmantel’s painting extremely interesting, as it struck me to do hours of research on the life and death of Savonarola, someone I previously knew nothing about. The painting presents the reality of men like Savonarola. They are small and weak, hiding behind their pile of riches and charisma. He was not the first of his kind, though, or the last. History repeats our whole damn lives, in some way or another. The past, present and future are all laid out in the cloth, we just have to look for it.