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Saint Bernardine of Siena and the original bonfire of the vanities

When Bernardine entered a city, he would preach for hours at a time, and his main topic was, invariably, penance. He reminded listeners that we are all sinners and that we should repent of our sins because they offend God.

Detail from an early painting (c. 1444) of Saint Bernardino, by Pietro di Giovanni d'Ambrogio. (Image: Wikipedia)

On May 20th, the Church commemorates St. Bernardine (or Bernardino) of Siena (1380-1444), a famous Franciscan priest who preached all over Italy. On Bernardine’s feast day, Catholics typically focus on one of his favorite preaching topics: devotion to the Most Holy Name of Jesus. But our post-Christian world remembers (and ridicules) Bernardine for a different reason: his bonfires of vanities.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is more than the title of a 1987 novel by Tom Wolfe. Although the term is most often associated with the tragic Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), Saint Bernardine made these bonfires an important part of his missionary activity long before Savonarola was even born.1 But how could a bonfire be part of a parish mission?

When Bernardine entered a city, he would preach for hours at a time, sometimes giving multiple sermons in a day. His main topic was, invariably, penance. That is, he would remind his listeners that we are all sinners and that we should repent of our sins because they offend God.

Penance might not seem like an attention-getting topic today, but when the zealous Bernardine preached about it, he drew audiences so large that he was often forced to preach outside the church to accommodate the crowd. His humility, knowledge, and talents as a speaker were not the only reasons that he attracted so many people. Rather than speaking generally about sin, he was not afraid to hurt his listeners’ tender feelings by identifying their actual sins.

Fifteenth-century Italian Catholics broke the same Ten Commandments that are commonly broken today. They skipped Mass, swore, and were superstitious. They made jokes about the idea that they should be obedient to their parents or employers or should be faithful to their marriage vows. They turned a blind eye to lying, stealing, and unscrupulous business practices.

Bernardine would simply point out that the things they were doing—and encouraging others to do—were sins, and that while God does love sinners, He also desires them to repent.

Bernardine concluded his talks by directing his listeners’ attention to a large sign with the letters IHS2 on it. He would encourage them to call upon the name of Jesus Christ to help them when they were tempted to sin, remind them of the power of the sacraments, and repeat these talks until he believed the Holy Spirit was moving him to leave for another Italian town.

But before leaving the city, he would invite people to go home, find those items that were tempting them to commit sins, and bring them to the village square, where they would be thrown into a great bonfire. By bringing their personal possessions to be burned, Catholics were showing that they had privately examined their consciences, had made a decision to stop a sinful practice, and were willing to publicly renounce those bad habits by ridding themselves of related items completely. Of course, they could (and some probably did) go out and buy replacement items after Bernardine left.

What would be thrown into these bonfires? Pornographic pictures are not a twenty-first century invention, and neither are the other items associated with lust, such as immodest clothing. Some people might recognize their personal vanity over a piece of jewelry, an expensive outfit, or some other precious item. Those with addictions to gambling or alcohol might decide to toss their decks of cards or bottles into the flames. There are many things that cannot be thrown onto a bonfire, such as foul or blasphemous speech, and stolen property would be better returned to its proper owner. But the most obvious possession to burn—and the most reprehensible one according to secular culture—would be books or artworks that were leading someone to commit sin.

Christians are forever accused of trying to ban books and censor artists, even in situations where such persecution is not occurring. It is certainly true that many writings and artworks have been lost forever over the centuries, sometimes due to the actions on the part of Christians or the Church,3 and that is a real tragedy. But most of the items thrown into Saint Bernardine’s bonfires were not irreplaceable treasures. They were books which encouraged superstition, immorality, or theological teachings contrary to that of the Church, or they were images that scandalized or titillated viewers.

Any Christian who has undergone a personal conversion has had a “bonfire” moment. What seemed like innocuous entertainment yesterday seems shocking today. Raunchy music lyrics, a sexy novel subplot, a blood-soaked video game, an f-bomb-laced tirade, gossipy headlines, or surfing through a parade of pointless luxuries had seemed like the background noise of life the day before. Now those things seem glaringly out of place in the life of someone who truly wants to be a friend of God.

But don’t the opponents of Christianity do the same things? Woke activists throw paint on famous paintings. Satanists tear up copies of the Bible. However, the motivations behind those acts are completely different. They destroy for the sake of destruction. Christians destroy for the sake of freedom.4

Our Lord did not tell us to destroy books that we don’t agree with. No, Jesus Christ said something stronger. He said we should be willing to give up anything that is causing us to sin because the alternative—continuing to sin and doing nothing about it—can lead us or our children to Hell.5 Online subscriptions can be canceled. Some CDs, DVDs, MP3 files, books, and other distractions can be passed on to others or to thrift stores. But sometimes we may find ourselves holding something in our hands that we fear could lead another soul to commit real sins, just as it misled our own.

Saint Bernardine would say to burn it.


1 Other great preachers, such as Saint Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419), are reputed to have used such bonfires for the same purpose.

2 IHS is a monogram for the name of Jesus Christ and is described here.

3 For example, many of the works of the ecclesiastical writer Origen (d. c. 254) were unfortunately destroyed after his death. This is generally attributed to a controversy that occurred in the early Church about some ideas he proposed in his writings.

4 See Gal 5:1.

5 See Matt 5:27-30, Matt 18:5-9, and Mark 9:42-48.

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About Dawn Beutner 68 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of The Leaven of the Saints: Bringing Christ into a Fallen World (Ignatius Press, 2023), and Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year also from Ignatius Press. She blogs at


  1. No immodest artwork or clothing is deserving of being preserved. Also, heretical or anti-Catholic writings ought to be (almost) entirely eradicated.

    Burn them all.

  2. Its interesting that such homilies would result in action. In modern times, concepts of sin and repentence is dead. Secular values appear to rule even in church. When is the last time a priest has suggested that congregants need to examine their conscience and NOT go to communion? Its a sad state of affairs. There is plenty of sin out there. For example, its the norm for unmarried couples to live together these days. Unless some priests gather their courage to speak the truth I doubt we can expect a change.

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