Tuxtla Volcano: Science, Art in 18th Century New Spain

In 1793, the Tuxtla volcano in San Martín Tuxtla, Veracruz, erupted in a terrifying spectacle that had locals fearing the end of the world. The event captured not just local attention but also that of Spain's King Charles IV, who dispatched a scientific expedition

Tuxtla Volcano: Science, Art in 18th Century New Spain
Graphic representation of Atanasio Echeverría painting the eruption of the volcano in San Martín Tuxtla, Veracruz from the illustration that is part of the file AGN, Instituciones Coloniales, Historia vol. 558, exp. 7.

On March 2, 1793, the earth shook as if in agony and the skies darkened over San Martín Tuxtla, a town in Veracruz, Mexico. This was not just another thunderstorm or natural event; it was something far more terrifying. The local volcano had awakened, heralding its fury with ominous rumblings. Within hours, lava oozed out, rocks and sparks shot skyward, and a vast cloud of ash enveloped the town. Fear gripped the people, who flocked to the church, praying for divine intervention. In their minds, this could very well be the apocalyptic end they had heard about in the scriptures.

This volcanic activity was more than a local calamity; it soon piqued the interest of the ruling elite and scholars. News of the eruption reached not just the viceregal halls of the capital in New Spain, but also the ears of King Charles IV of Spain. Influenced by his father's policies to advance science, the King ordered Juan Vicente de Güemes Pacheco de Padilla, the Viceroy of New Spain, to dispatch experts to study the phenomenon. It was a moment when empirical knowledge collided with the untamed forces of nature.

The expedition was spearheaded by two illustrious individuals: botanist José Mariano Mociño and painter Atanasio Echeverría. Mociño was tasked with investigating the temperature, the effects of the rain, and the extent of the ash cloud. Echeverría, on the other hand, was appointed to translate scientific observations into evocative drawings and lithographs. The twin goals were clear: to understand the event scientifically and capture its emotional impact.

During the expedition, on May 22, the researchers were in for a jolt. As they were collecting testimonies from the villagers, the Tuxtla volcano exploded once more. A column of fire shot up, serving as a violent reminder that the earth beneath their feet was far from stable. The most dramatic event occurred on June 28: roads were obliterated, groves vanished, and the Tuxtla River was clogged with massive sandbanks.

The Unprecedented Impact

The Tuxtla volcano disaster had wide-ranging and unprecedented effects. Thunderstorms erupted. Ash clouds, so extensive that they crossed regional boundaries, covered Veracruz and beyond. Rumbles from the eruption could be heard from several kilometers away, leaving an indelible imprint on the collective memory.

To record these phenomena, Mociño and Echeverría shifted to the east side of Veracruz. It was here that Echeverría sketched what would become an iconic representation of the most shocking natural catastrophe of the 18th century in New Spain.

What the Tuxtla volcano event illuminated was more than just the geological instability of the region. It marked a fascinating intersection of science, art, and communal fear in a society that was struggling to understand the world through both empirical evidence and religious belief. While the populace sought divine intervention to calm the volcano's wrath, the King's command to send an expedition represented a pursuit of scientific understanding. Both approaches—spiritual and scientific—were means to grapple with an unpredictable and awe-inspiring natural world.

The enduring impact of the Tuxtla volcano eruption was not merely physical; it also had cultural and intellectual reverberations. It spurred a scientific quest and artistic endeavor that aimed to capture the terrifying beauty and colossal power of Mother Nature. Mociño and Echeverría’s work serves as a lasting testament to humanity’s relentless quest to make sense of the forces that can, in a moment's notice, change the course of lives and landscapes forever.

So, the next time you find yourself amidst natural beauty—or natural disaster—remember the tale of the Tuxtla volcano. It's a story that shows us how science, art, and the human spirit intertwine in the face of nature's unpredictability. And it's a story that continues to be told, as communities, scientists, and artists worldwide seek to understand and interpret the ever-changing world around us.

Source: Nación, Archivo General de la. ‘La aventura expedicionaria por la erupción del volcán Tuxtla’. gob.mx, http://www.gob.mx/agn/articulos/la-aventura-expedicionaria-por-la-erupcion-del-volcan-tuxtla-336877?idiom=es. Accessed 14 Sept. 2023.