Study Guide

Prison Meditations on Psalms 51 and 31

by Girolamo Savonarola

Prison Meditations on Psalms 51 and 31 Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Written during Girolamo Savonarola’s final weeks in his Florentine prison, a term that would end with his fiery execution, these Psalm meditations, originally written in Latin, are his most-read works. He wrote these works after being tortured and signing a confession that recanted his faith, then regretting his weak will in the face of torture. His meditation on Psalm 51 is complete and offered in the form of a highly personal prayer to God who alone can provide hope as Savonarola faces his many enemies. His incomplete meditation on Psalm 31 presents only the first two verses and develops as a spiritual conversation between the writer and Sadness and Hope personified. Immediately popular, within two years Psalm 51 went through eight Latin editions and seventy-eight in Latin and vernaculars by 1600; Psalm 31 has seen more than eighty editions.

Each verse of Psalm 51 prompts a meditation. Sinful, Savonarola is abandoned by all but God, his only hope. Yet God is all, “the supreme reality . . . indescribable majesty,” how can he presume to approach God? However, God is also supreme mercy, and Savonarola asks that God take away his misery. By the blood of Christ his salvation is made possible, and so he asks that God turn him toward himself, forgive his sins, and “justify [him] through your grace.” As God’s mercy aided Peter, Mary Magdalene, and the penitent thief, so may God deign to aid Savonarola: “blot out my iniquity . . . wipe clean my heart.” The author has benefited from God’s mercy before, but his fear and love of self and the world assure him that he is still “imperfectly clean” and in need of further cleansing with tears, the Scriptures, and divine graces. His sin was against God and therefore against himself, and it sits before him always. His sin was love of a creature (unspecified, perhaps himself) that interfered with his love of God, and fear of humans (under torture?) before fear of God. His tormentors claim that God has withdrawn all help, and Savonarola begs that God prove them wrong. He admits that Original Sin has twisted him and therefore made him prone to iniquity and sin and in need of God’s mercy and kindness.

God is also complete and full of love, and Savonarola prays that by virtue of God’s boundless love for his creation, he will save him. God’s promise is contained in the stories of David and the prodigal son, and the promise is truth, and God loves truth. Savonarola is the prodigal son and relies only on the grace of Christ. The worldly philosophers do not understand the power of God’s promise as does Savonarola, to whom it...

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Prison Meditations on Psalms 51 and 31 Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Erlanger, Rachel. The Unarmed Prophet: Savonarola in Florence. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987. An energetically written biography of Savonarola that emphasizes the intersection of moral and political reform in his writings and public activities.

Martines, Lauro. Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Sympathetic discussion of the man and his influence as a religious reformer in Florence. Martines wraps his venerable expertise and sound judgments in vivid prose.

Savonarola, Girolamo. Selected Writings of Girolamo Savonarola: Religion and Politics, 1490-1498. Translated and edited by Anne Borelli and Maria Pastore Passaro. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006. This is a significant collection of many of Savonarola’s major and minor works, most of which have not been published in English before, including sermons, biblical commentaries, and other moral guides essays.