History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 129. Bernardino Ochino. 1487–1565.

Comp. § 40, p. 162. Ochino’s Sermons, Tragedy, Catechism, Labyrinths, and Dialogues. His works are very rare; one of the best collections is in the library of Wolfenbüttel; copious extracts in Schelhorn, Trechsel, Schweizer, and Benrath. A full list in Benrath’s monograph, Appendix II. 374–382. His letters (Italian and Latin), ibid. AppendixI1. 337–373. Ochino is often mentioned in Calvin’s and Bullinger’s correspondence.

Zaccaria Boverio (Rom. Cath.) in the Chronicle of the Order of the Capuchins, 1630 (inaccurate and hostile). Bayle’s "Dict."—Schelhorn: Ergötzlich-keiten aus der Kirchenhistorie, Ulm and Leipzig, 1764, vol. III. (with several documents in Latin and Italian).—Trechsel: Antitrinitarier, II. 202–270.—Schweizer: Centraldogmen, I. 297–309.—Cesare Cantu (Rom. Cath.): Gli Eretici d’Italia, Turin, 1565–1567, 3vols. —Büchsenschütz: Vie et écrits de B. O., Strasbourg, 1872.—*Karl Benrath: Bernardino Ochino von Siena. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Reformation, Leipzig, 1875 (384 pp.; 2d ed. 1892; transl. by Helen Zimmern, with preface by William Arthur, London, 1876, 304 pp.; the letters of Ochino are omitted).—Comp. C. Schmidt in his Peter Martyr Vermigli (1858), pp. 21 sqq., and art. in Herzog2 X. 680–683. (This article is unsatisfactory and shows no knowledge of Benrath, although he is mentioned in the lit.)

Mi sara facile tutto in Christo per el qual vivo et spero di morire.

(From Ochino’s letter to the Council of Siena, Sept. 5, 1540; reproduced from Benrath’s monograph.)

The Capuchin Monk.

Bernardino Ochino929929    Also spelled Occhino, in Latin Ocellus. is one of the most striking and picturesque characters among the Italian Protestants of the Reformation period. He was an oratorical genius and monkish saint who shone with meteoric brilliancy on the sky of Italy, but disappeared at last under a cloud of scepticism in the far North.

He reminds one of three other eloquent monks: Savonarola, who was burnt in Florence at the stake; Father Gavazzi, who became a Calvinist and died peacefully in Rome; and Père Hyacinthe, who left the Carmelite order and the pulpit of Notre Dame in Paris without joining any Protestant Church.

Ochino was born in the fair Tuscan city of Siena, which is adorned by a Gothic marble dome and gave birth to six popes, fifty cardinals, and a number of canonized saints, among them the famous Caterina of Siena; but also to Protestant heretics, like Lelio and Fausto Sozini. He joined the Franciscans, and afterwards the severe order of the Capuchins, which had recently been founded by Fra Matteo Bassi in 1525. He hoped to gain heaven by self-denial and good works. He far surpassed his brethren in ability and learning,930930    Boverius (ad ann. 1535): "Bernardinus divinis et humanis literas non mediocriter imbutus." although his education was defective (he did not know the original languages of the Bible). He was twice elected Vicar-General of the Order. He was revered by many as a saint for his severe asceticism and mortification of the flesh. Vittoria Colonna, the most gifted woman of Italy, and the Duchess Renata of Ferrara were among his ardent admirers. Pope Paul III. intended to create him a cardinal.931931    Sand, Seckendorf, C. Schmidt (in Herzog), and others, state that the pope made Ochino his confessor; but this is without support, and intrinsically improbable. See Benrath, 33 sq. (German ed.).

Ochino as an Orator.

Ochino was the most popular preacher of Italy in his time. No such orator had appeared since the death of Savonarola in 1498. He was in general demand for the course of sermons during Lent, and everywhere—in Siena, Naples, Rome, Florence, Venice—he attracted crowds of people who listened to him as to a prophet sent from God.

We can hardly understand from his printed sermons the extravagant laudations of his contemporaries. But good preachers were rare in Italy, and the effect of popular oratory depends upon action as much as on diction. We must take into account the magnetism of his personality, the force of dramatic delivery, the lively gestures, the fame of his monastic sanctity, his emaciated face, his gleaming eyes, his tall stature and imposing figure. The portrait prefixed to his "Nine Sermons," published at Venice, 1539, shows him to us as he was at the time: a typical Capuchin monk, with the head bent, the gaze upturned, the eyes deeply sunk under the brows, the nose aquiline, the mouth half open, the head shaved on top, the beard reaching down to his breast.

Cardinal Sadolet compared him to the orators of antiquity. One of his hearers in Naples said, This man could make the very stones weep.932932    "Predicava con ispirito grande che faceva piagnere i sassi." Some wrongly attribute this saying of Rosso to the Emperor Charles V., who heard Ochino at Naples. Benrath, 24, note.

Cardinal Bembo933933    He was then the historiographer of Venice, but was soon afterwards created cardinal by Paul III., March 24, 1539. secured him for Lent at Venice through Vittoria Colonna, and wrote to her (Feb. 23, 1539): "I have heard him all through Lent with such pleasure that I cannot praise him enough. I have never heard more useful and edifying sermons than his, and I no longer wonder that you esteem him so highly. He preaches in a far more Christian manner than other preachers, with more real sympathy and love, and utters more soothing and elevating thoughts. Every one is delighted with him." A few months later (April 4, 1539) he wrote to the same lady: "Our Fra Bernardino is literally adored here. There is no one who does not praise him to the skies. How deeply his words penetrate, how elevating and comforting his discourses!" He begged him to eat meat and to restrain from excessive abstinence lest he should break down.

Even Pietro Aretino, the most frivolous and immoral poet of that time, was superficially converted for a brief season by Ochino’s preaching, and wrote to Paul III. (April 21, 1539): "Bembo has won a thousand souls for Paradise by bringing to Venice Fra Bernardino, whose modesty is equal to his virtue. I have myself begun to believe in the exhortations trumpeted forth from the mouth of this apostolic monk."

Cardinal Commendone, afterwards Bishop of Amelia, an enemy of Ochino, gives this description of him: "Every thing about Ochino contributed to make the admiration of the multitude almost overstep all human bounds,—the fame of his eloquence; his prepossessing, ingratiating manner; his advancing years; his mode of life; the rough Capuchin garb; the long beard reaching to his breast; the gray hair; the pale, thin face; the artificial aspect of bodily weakness; finally, the reputation of a holy life. Wherever he was to speak the citizens might be seen in crowds; no church was large enough to contain the multitude of listeners. Men flocked as numerously as women. When he went elsewhere the crowd followed after to hear him. He was honored not only by the common people, but also by princes and kings. Wherever he came he was offered hospitality; he was met at his arrival, and escorted at his departure, by the dignitaries of the place. He himself knew how to increase the desire to hear him, and the reverence shown him. Obedient to the rule of his order, he only travelled on foot; he was never seen to ride, although his health was delicate and his age advanced. Even when Ochino was the guest of nobles—an honor he could not always refuse—he could never be induced, by the splendor of palaces, dress, and ornament, to forsake his mode of life. When invited to table, he ate of only one very simple dish, and he drank little wine; if a soft bed had been prepared for him, he begged permission to rest on a more comfortable pallet, spread his cloak on the ground, and laid down to rest. These practices gain him incredible honor throughout all Italy."

Conversion to Protestantism.

Ochino was already past fifty when he began to lose faith in the Roman Church. The first traces of the change are found in his "Nine Sermons" and "Seven Dialogues," which were published at Venice in 1539 and 1541. He seems to have passed through an experience similar to that of Luther in the convent at Erfurt, only less deep and lasting. The vain monastic struggle after righteousness led him to despair of himself, and to find peace in the assurance of justification by faith in the merits of Christ. As long as he was a monk, so he informs us, he went even beyond the requirements of his order in reading masses, praying the Pater Noster and Ave Maria, reciting Psalms and prayers, confessing trifling sins once or twice a day, fasting and mortifying his body. But he came gradually to the conviction that Christ has fully satisfied for his elect, and conquered Paradise for them; that monastic vows were not obligatory, and were even immoral; and that the Roman Church, though brilliant in outward appearance, was thoroughly corrupt and an abomination in the eyes of God.

In this transition state he was much influenced by his personal intercourse with Jean de Valdés and Peter Martyr. Valdés, a Spanish nobleman who lived at Rome and Naples, was an evangelical mystic, and the real author of that remarkable book, "On the Benefit of Christ’s Death" (published at Venice, 1540). It was formerly attributed to Aonio Paleario (a friend of Ochino), and had a wide circulation in Italy till it was suppressed and publicly burnt at Naples in 1553.

During the Lent season of 1542, Ochino preached his last course of sermons at Venice. The papal agents watched him closely and reported some expressions as heretical. He was forbidden to preach, and cited to Rome.

Caraffa had persuaded Pope Paul III. to use violent measures for the suppression of the Protestant heresy. In Rome, Peter had conquered Simon Magus, the patriarch of all heretics; in Rome’ the successor of Peter must conquer all successors of the arch-heretic. The Roman Inquisition was established by the bull Licet ab initio, July 21, 1542, under the direction of six cardinals. with plenary power to arrest and imprison persons suspected of heresy, and to confiscate their property. The famous General of the Capuchins was to be the first victim of the "Holy Office."

Ochino departed for Rome in August. Passing through Bologna, he called on the noble Cardinal Contarini, who in the previous year had met Melanchthon and Calvin at the Colloquy of Ratisbon, and was suspected of having a leaning to the Lutheran doctrine of justification, and to a moderate reformation. The cardinal was sick, and died soon after (August 24). The interview was brief, but left upon Ochino the impression that there was no chance for him in Rome. He continued his journey to Florence, met Peter Martyr in a similar condition, and was warned of the danger awaiting both. He felt that he must choose between Rome or Christ, between silence or death, and that flight was the only escape from this alternative. He resolved to save his life for future usefulness, though he was already fifty-six years old, gray-haired, and enfeebled by his ascetic life. If I remain in Italy, he said, my mouth is sealed; if I leave, I may by my writings continue to labor for the truth with some prospect of success.

He proved by his conduct the sincerity of his conversion to Protestantism. He risked every thing by secession from the papacy. An orator has no chance in a foreign land with a foreign tongue.934934    Caraffa, the restorer of the Inquisition, ascribed his conversion to impure motives, but without evidence. On these calumnies see Benrath, pp. 170 sq. Audin (ch. XLV.), drawing on his imagination, says that Ochino, tempted by the demon of doubt and pride, fled to Geneva with a young girl whom he had seduced!

Ochino in Switzerland.

In August, 1542, he left Florence; Peter Martyr followed two days later. He was provided with a servant and a horse by Ascanio Colonna, a brother of Vittoria, his friend.935935    Colonna sent him afterwards through a messenger some means of support to Switzerland, as we learn from a letter of Bullinger. At Ferrara, the Duchess Renata furnished him with clothing and other necessaries, and probably also with a letter to her friend Calvin. According to Boverius, the annalist of the Capuchins, who deplores his apostasy as a great calamity for the order, he was accompanied by three lay brethren from Florence.

He proceeded through the Grisons to Zürich, and stopped there two days. He was kindly received by Bullinger, who speaks of him in a letter to Vadian (Dec. 19, 1542) as a venerable man, famous for sanctity of life and eloquence.

He arrived at Geneva about September, 1542, and remained there three years. He preached to the small Italian congregation, but devoted himself chiefly to literary work by which he hoped to reach a larger public in his native land. He was deeply impressed with the moral and religious prosperity of Geneva, the like of which he had never seen before, and gave a favorable description of it in one of his Italian sermons.936936    Quoted in Italian by Trechsel, II. 203, in German by Benrath, p. 169.

"In Geneva, where I am now residing," he wrote in October, 1542, "excellent Christians are daily preaching the pure word of God. The Holy Scriptures are constantly read and openly discussed, and every one is at liberty to propound what the Holy Spirit suggests to him, just as, according to the testimony of Paul, was the case in the primitive Church. Every day there is a public service of devotion. Every Sunday there is catechetical instruction of the young, the simple, and the ignorant. Cursing and swearing, unchastity, sacrilege, adultery, and impure living, such as prevail in many places where I have lived, are unknown here. There are no pimps and harlots. The people do not know what rouge is, and they are all clad in a seemly fashion. Games of chance are not customary. Benevolence is so great that the poor need not beg. The people admonish each other in brotherly fashion, as Christ prescribes. Lawsuits are banished from the city; nor is there any simony, murder, or party spirit, but only peace and charity. On the other hand, there are no organs here, no noise of bells, no showy songs, no burning candles and lamps, no relics, pictures, statues, canopies, or splendid robes, no farces, or cold ceremonies. The churches are quite free from all idolatry."937937    "Le chiese sono purgatissime da ogni idolatria." This testimony is confirmed by Vergerio, Farel, Knox, and others. See § 110, pp. 516 sqq.

Ochino wrote at Geneva a justification of his flight, in a letter to Girolamo Muzio (April 7, 1543). In a letter to the magistrates of Siena, he gave a full confession of his faith based chiefly on the eighth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans (Nov. 3, 1543). He published, in rapid succession, seven volumes of Italian sermons or theological essays.938938    Prediche, Geneva, 1542-1544, several editions also in Latin, French, German, and English. See Benrath, pp. 374 sq., and his summary of the contents, pp. 175 sqq.

He says in the Preface to these sermons: "Now, my dear Italy, I can no more speak to you from mouth to mouth; but I will write to you in thine own language, that everybody may understand me. My comfort is that Christ so willed it, that, laying aside all earthly considerations, I may regard only the truth. And as the justification of the sinner by Christ is the beginning of the Christian life, let us begin with it in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." His sermons are evangelical, and show a mystical tendency, as we might expect from a disciple of Valdes. He lays much stress on the vital union of the soul with Christ by faith and love. He teaches a free salvation by the sole merits of Christ, and the Calvinistic doctrine of sovereign election, but without the negative inference of reprobation. He wrote also a popular, paraphrastic commentary on his favorite Epistle to the Romans (1545), which was translated into Latin and German. Afterwards, he published sermons on the Epistle to the Galatians, which were printed at Augsburg, 1546.

He lived on good terms with Calvin, who distrusted the Italians, but after careful inquiry was favorably impressed with Ochino’s "eminent learning and exemplary life."939939    He wrote to Pellican, April 19, 1543: "Quoniam Italicis plerisque ingeniis non multum fido ..., contuli cum eo diligenter .... Hoc testimonium pio et sancto viro visum est .... Est enim praestanti et ingenio et doctrina et sanctitate." Opera, XI. 528. He mentions him first in a letter to Viret (September, 1542) as a venerable refugee, who lived in Geneva at his own expense, and promised to be of great service if he could learn French.940940    Opera, XI. 447 sq. Comp. letter to Viret, October, 1542, ibid. 458: "Bernardus noster miris machinis impetitus est, ut nobis abduceretur: constanter tamen perstat." In a letter to Melanchthon (Feb. 14, 1543), he calls him an "eminent and excellent man, who has occasioned no little stir in Italy by his departure."941941    "Magnum et praeclarum virum, qui suo discessu non parum Italiam commovit." Opera, XI. 517. Two years afterwards (Aug. 15, 1545), he recommended him to Myconius of Basel as "deserving of high esteem everywhere."942942    "Bern. Senensis, vir nuper in Italia magni nominis, dignus certe qui habeatur ubique in pretio." Opera, XII. 135. Benrath (192) gives the wrong date of this letter, viz. 1542,—probably a typographical error.

Ochino associated at Basel with Castellio, and employed him in the translation of his works from the Italian. This connection may have shaken his confidence in the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination and free-will.

Ochino in Germany.

He labored for some time as preacher and author in Strassburg, where he met his old friend Peter Martyr, and in Augsburg, where he received from the city council a regular salary of two hundred guilders as preacher among the foreigners. This was his first regular settlement after he had left Italy. At Augsburg he lived with his brother-in-law and sister. He seems to have married at that time, if not earlier.943943    Benrath, p. 194. We know nothing of his wife and children, not even their names. An old monk is not well fitted for a happy family life.

Ochino in England.

After his victory over the Smalkaldian League, the Emperor Charles V. held a triumphant entry in Augsburg, Jan. 23, 1547, and demanded the surrender of the Apostate monk, whose powerful voice he had heard from the pulpit at Naples eleven years before. The magistrates enabled Ochino to escape in the night. He fled to Zürich, where he accidentally met Calvin, who arrived there on the same day. From Zürich he went to Basel.

Here he received, in 1547, a call to England from Archbishop Cranmer, who needed foreign aid in the work of the Reformation under the favorable auspices of the young King Edward VI. At the same time he called Peter Martyr, then professor at Strassburg, to a theological professorship at Oxford, and two years afterwards he invited Bucer and Fagius of Strassburg, who refused to sign the Augsburg Interim, to professorial chairs in the University of Cambridge (1549). Ochino and Peter Martyr made the journey together in company with an English knight, who provided the outfit and the travelling expenses.

Ochino labored six years in London, from 1547 to 1554, probably the happiest of his troubled life,—as evangelist among the Italian merchants and refugees, and as a writer in aid of the Reformation. His family followed him. He enjoyed the confidence of Cranmer, who appointed him canon of Canterbury (though he never resided there), and received a competent salary from the private purse of the king.

His chief work of that period is a theological drama against the papacy under the title "A Tragedy or a Dialogue of the unjust, usurped primacy of the Bishop of Rome," with a flattering dedication to Edward VI. He takes the ground of all the Reformers, that the pope is the predicted Antichrist, seated in the temple of God; and traces, in a series of nine conversations, with considerable dramatic skill but imperfect historical information, the gradual growth of the papacy from Boniface III. and Emperor Phocas (607) to its downfall in England under Henry VIII. and Edward VI.944944    The book was translated from Latin into English by Dr. John Ponnet, afterwards bishop of Winchester, and published in London, 1549. Benrath gives a good summary, pp. 215 sqq.

Ochino again in Switzerland.

After the accession of Queen Mary, Ochino had to flee, and went a second time to Geneva. He arrived there a day after the burning of Servetus (Oct. 28, 1553), which he disapproved, but he did not lose his respect for Calvin, whom he called, in a letter of Dec. 4, 1555, the first divine and the ornament of the century.945945    "Seculi nostri decus." Benrath, 364 sq.

He accepted a call as pastor of the Italian congregation at Zürich. Here he associated freely with Peter Martyr, but more, it would seem, with Laelius Socinus, who was also a native of Siena, and who by his sceptical opinions exerted an unsettling influence on his mind.

He wrote a catechism for his congregation (published at Basel, 1561) in the form of a dialogue between "Illuminato" (the catechumen) and "Ministro." He explains the usual five parts—the Decalogue (which fills one-half of the book), the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, with an appendix of prayers.

His last works were his "Labyrinths" (1561) and "Thirty Dialogues" (1563), translated by Castellio into Latin, and published by an Italian printer at Basel. In these books Ochino discusses the doctrines of predestination, free-will, the Trinity, and monogamy, in a latitudinarian and sceptical way, which made the heretical view appear stronger in the argument than the orthodox.

The most objectionable is the dialogue on polygamy (Dial. XXI.), which he seemed to shield by the example of the patriarchs and kings of the Old Testament; while monogamy was not sufficiently defended, although it is declared to be the only moral form of marriage.946946    I learn from Schelhorn (III. 2152), that this dialogue appeared in an English translation, "by a Person of Quality," in London, 1657. The subject was much ventilated in that age, especially in connection with the bigamy of Philip of Hesse and the deplorable connivance of the Lutheran Reformers. A dialogue in favor of polygamy appeared in 1541, under the fictitious name of "Huldericus Neobulus," in the interest of Philip of Hesse. From this dialogue Ochino borrowed some of his strongest arguments.947947    The correspondence of the two books has been proven by Schelhorn, l.c., III. 2140 sqq., and I. 631 sqq. Bucer was suspected of being concealed under the Neobulus, but he denied it. See Schelhorn, I. 634. This accounts for his theoretical error. He certainly could have had no personal motive, for he was then in his seventy-seventh year, a widower with four children.948948    His wife died in consequence of an accident shortly before the Dialogues were published. Benrath, p. 307. His moral life had always been unblemished, as his congregation and Bullinger testified.

The End.

The dialogue on polygamy caused the unceremonious deposition and expulsion of the old man from Zürich by the Council, in December, 1563. In vain did he protest against misinterpreta-tion, and beg to be allowed to remain during the cold winter with his four children. He was ordered to quit the city within three weeks. Even the mild Bullinger did not protect him. He went to Basel, but the magistrates of that city were even more intolerant than the clergy, and would not permit him to remain during the winter. Castellio, the translator of the obnoxious books, was also called to account, but was soon summoned to a higher judgment (December 23). The printer, Perna, who had sold all the copies, was threatened with punishment, but seems to have escaped it.

Ochino found a temporary hiding-place in Nürnberg, and sent from there in self-defence an ill-tempered attack upon Zürich, to which the ministers of that city replied.949949    Spongia adversus aspergines Bernardini Ochini, etc., printed in Hottinger’s Historia Eccles. N. Ti., and in Schelhorn, III. 2157-2194.

Being obliged to leave Nürnberg, he turned his weary steps to Poland, and was allowed to preach to his countrymen at Cracow. But Cardinal Hosius and the papal nuncio denounced him as an atheist, and induced the king to issue an edict by which all non-Catholic foreigners were expelled from Poland (Aug. 6, 1564).

Ochino entered upon his last weary journey. At Pinczow he was seized by the pestilence and lost three of his children; nothing is known of the fourth. He himself survived, but a few weeks afterwards he took sick again and ended his lonely life at the end of December, 1564, at Schlackau in Moravia: a victim of his sceptical speculations and the intolerance of his age. A veil is thrown over his last days: no monument, no inscription marks his grave. What a sad contrast between the bright morning and noon-day, and the gloomy evening, of his public life!

A false rumor was spread that before his journey to Poland he met at Schaffhausen the cardinal of Lorraine on his return from the Council of Trent, and offered to prove twenty-four errors against the Reformed Church. The offer was declined with the remark: "Four errors are enough." The rumor was investigated, but could not be verified. He himself denied it, and one of his last known utterances was: "I wish to be neither a Bullingerite, nor a Calvinist, nor a Papist, but simply a Christian."950950    From a letter of Knibb to Bullinger, Easter, 1564, in the Simler Collection in Zürich. Trechsel, II. 265; Benrath, 315.

His sceptical views on the person of Christ and the atonement disturbed and nearly broke up the Italian congregation in Zürich. No new pastor was elected; the members coalesced with the German population, and the antitrinitarian influences disappeared.

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