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Francis Alive and Aloft: Franciscan Apocalypticism in the Colonial Andes

From: The Americas
Volume 70, Number 2, October 2013
pp. 139-163 | 10.1353/tam.2013.0096

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The seventeenth century opened with a bang, literally. In the year 1600, on the first Friday in the season of Lent, sometime between noon and 3:00 PM (that is, at the hour of the accustomed Lenten penitential processions), the Peruvian volcano of Huaynaputina began a protracted series of explosions and eruptions. It was the largest recorded volcanic eruption in the Western Hemisphere, greater by far than that of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, or Mount St. Helens in 1980, and only slightly smaller than the colossal eruption of Krakatoa, Indonesia, in 1883. The event sent both Christian Spaniards and neo-Christian Indians searching for answers to apocalyptic questions. On that same Friday, February 18, 1600, several other violent earthquakes leveled buildings nearby. The first eruption was accompanied by deafening explosions and flashes of light, apparently coming from the caldera. The blast was so strong that people within a radius of a thousand kilometers could hear it; the residents of Lima thought at first that it was an attack by English pirates off their coast. On Sunday, February 20, another explosion occurred, spewing ash and pumice. The sky turned red and then darkened to the black of midnight—all this at high noon. It was not until six days later that the sun and stars could again be seen, and the moon had a strange red glow (see Revelation 6:12). Then, on the following Friday, February 25, a new series of eruptions commenced, and the ear-shattering noise and earthquakes continued.

In the nearby city of Arequipa the ground gave way, rising or sinking as much as two meters in some places. The Franciscan church, which had been begun in 1552, survived with just a few cracks, but the collapse of the stone vaulting of the city’s cathedral crushed to death many of the faithful who were attending mass. On Monday, February 28, at 3:00 PM a total darkness fell over the city, and no sun appeared until the first of March when Huaynaputina opened its eastward side in a lateral eruption that sent a torrent of fire flowing out into the nearby Tambo River. Fish were either boiled alive or died within moments because of the high level of mercury in the contaminated water. Lahars (hot mud flows of melted snow) reached the Pacific Ocean 120 kilometers to the west, while pyroclastic surges of gases and rock traveled as far as 13 kilometers inland to the east. The emotional shock was heightened when wild animals from the mountains took refuge within the city limits, to the horror of the citizenry. Throughout the ordeal, during the long pitch-black days that spread in a belt across South America, the terror was heightened by red-hot pyroclastic bombs, the size of a human head, which were ejected with such force that they rained fire from heaven for miles around. At any moment, out of the darkness, a molten projectile might fall on some unfortunate soul. If residents did not die struck down or burned, they might well be among the many who suffocated.

In Arequipa, the ash reached waist-high. It fell also in Cuzco, La Paz, and Sucre, even as far away as Panama, Nicaragua, and Mexico. In the Northern Hemisphere, the sun was blocked even in regions of Russia, which that year experienced the coldest winter in six centuries, followed by a famine in 1601. Crops failed in other parts of Europe and Asia as well. The grape and wheat harvests in Peru were destroyed, making it impossible for months to find wine or bread for the celebration of the mass; pious communicants were inconsolable. When the sun finally reappeared on April 2, the suffocating ash and lahars had buried alive the inhabitants of seven Indian towns in the immediate vicinity of the volcano. In Arequipa, there was neither food nor potable water, and the priests resorted to employing an exorcism to conjure the clouds for rain. When the rains did come, they brought mudslides and more deaths. In August of that year there was another eruption, and finally in November, the event that had all the elements of the Apocalypse ended, not to be repeated...

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