My illustrations are from Heneage Finch, Earl of Winchilsea’s A true and exact relation of the late prodigious earthquake & eruption of Mount AEtna, or, Monte-Gibello (1669) and from a ballad, Mount AEtna's flames, or, The Sicilian wonder (also 1669) written to tell the same marvels to a less polite audience, where I believe that we can see the woodcut engraver doing a down-market version of the Earl’s woodcut (just as the ballad itself is entirely indebted to the illustrated pamphlet). Finch had gone to some trouble to get the original drawing done, as his pamphlet explains: “As Your Majesty will see by the draught that I take the boldness to send herewith; it was the best I could get, but hath nothing of the Progress into the Sea [he means, the sight of the lava flowing into the sea itself]; the confusion was so great in the City, which is almost surrounded with Mountains of Fire, that I could not get any to draw one…”
Heneage Finch was Ambassador to
I was therefore interested to find Thomas Vincent’s Fire and brimstone from heaven, from earth, in hell, or,
A section like this one following is mainly directly lifted from Finch, with a few biblical references (which might remind us of Milton’s conspicuously volcanic hell): “But that which was most notable in these eruptions, was the stream and flood of fire, which in liqued melted matter, gushed forth at the breaches. We read Isa. 30. 33. Of a stream of Brimstone kindled by the breath of God, which runneth in burning Tophet: Such was the stream of Fire and Brimstone which came forth of this burning Mountain, the flames of it were blew like burning brimstone, the coulour of it fiery red, like melted brasse, the motion of it like Quick-silver; this stream (wherein great stones were seem to swim of the bigness of an ordinary Table) coming forth at the sides of the Mountain, ran down like a mighty torrent, and meeting with a Hill devided it self into two currents, which spread themselves, one of them in some places at least six miles in breadth, and was judged to be fifteen yards in depth. In its progresse this stream ran in, upon a
Where Heneage made no comment, Thomas makes propaganda: “Yea, the Image of the blessed Lady of the Annunciata, (so highly reverenced by the Superstitious Papists, unto which many resorted in Pilgrimage from remote parts) was not spared, whatever power the Intercession of that Virgin Lady hath with her Son in Heaven, for persons here upon the Earth, (as the Papists ridiculously fancy) yet nothing could now avail to secure her Image from being swallowed up by this devouring fiery stream; whereby all may see that there was no difference between the stones of that Image, and those of the other buildings in that place which equally felt the force of the fire.”
Despite making some allusions to the dismay and panic in London at the 1666 great fire, Thomas feels a Protestant population would have coped better: “Had the Christian religion taken place there in the purity and power thereof, it might have born up the spirits of the sincere, and established Christians against overwhelming fear and amazement in all those storms and danger; no wonder if the blind Superstitious Papists, whose worship is mingled with such vanity and Indolatry, be filled with such dread and horrour, especially the more notorious Sinners amongst them.”
Soon he is ranting away (I suspect a certain disappointment with God for making all this smoke without carbonizing a suitable number of sinners): “Sicily hath drunk deep of the Cup of Fornication, which is in the hand of the Romish Whore, and God made some of them drink something of the Cup of his Wrath and Indignation: yea, Sodomy it self is of frequent practice in those parts, and God brings ruine like unto that of Sodom upon their houses by Streams of Fire and Brimstone, though through infinite patience their persons were preserved.”
Thomas Vincent does half know that Athanasius Kirchner and Nicholas Steno are establishing what would become geology, but he is having none of it: “Some are of the opinion that there are Fountains of Fire under ground as well as of Water; and that in the bosom and bowels of the Earth, God hath layd up Treasures of this Element, enclosing it in vast Caverns, as in so many Store-houses; which Subterranean Fire they assign to be the cause of hot Bathes, and that Mount Aetna, as also Vesuvius with other flaming Mountains, which Geographers and Travellers tell us are to be seen in all the parts of the World, are the breathing holes of this Fire: but the Scripture is wholly silent of any such work of God there; we read of the Earth, and the gathering together of the waters, and the Fountains of the great deep, but nothing of any Fountains of Fire mingled with either of these Elements; and the laying up of this Element in store, in a place so low, when naturally it tendeth upwards, is not easie to conceive; besides who ever hath descended into the depths of the Earth, to search and find out these depths of Fire?”
Vincent’s main purpose was to expound the Christian message of the eruption. His whole book develops a religious pyromania. The Great Fire of London is strongly on his mind; and for him, the Western world seems to be going up in flames: “These late dreadful Eruptions of Fire and Brimstone from
His eagerness to seize on the eruption, and other parts of his book about whether the flames of hell are metaphorical or not, suggest that he is concerned by questioning or outright denial of the existence of hell. Samuel Richardson’s A discourse of the torments of hell: The foundation and pillars thereof discovered, searched, shaken and removed. With many infallible proofs, that there is not to be a punishment after this life for any to endure that shall never end (anonymous in 1658, over Richardson’s own name in 1660) may have come his way. Etna, thoroughly supernatural in Vincent’s account, helps him reinforce belief in the other supernatural flames: his 3rd chapter explains ‘That Hell is a place of Fire and Brimstone’, then follow the categorical pronouncements of chapter 4:
“Concerning the properties of Hell-fire.
There are seven properties of Hell-fire.
- First, It will be a great Fire.
- Secondly, It will be a dark fire.
- Thirdly, It will be a feirce fire.
- Fourthly, It will be an irresistible fire.
- Fifthly, It will be a continual fire.
- Sixthly, It will be an unquenchable fire.
- Seventhly, It will be an everlasting fire.”
This website has other contemporary engravings, at least as vivid as that in Finch, of the 1669 eruption: