Physico-Theology: Disaster becomes beautiful

In her essay on the motive of Mount Vesuvius, Valerie Hammelbacher traces the beginning of the image of disaster in art history back to the Britsh enlightment and the philosophy of physico-theology. More often referred to as natural theology, this school of thought challenged the prior concept of natural disaster as divine punishment and instead tried to find scientific explanations while maintaining the idea of divine power. Thomas Burnets treaty “The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of Creation” (1691) ushers in the age of physico-theology. According to Burnets and his colleagues, any natural phenomenon is logical, useful, immaculate and thus beautiful. This includes a disaster like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which could now become a topic for fine arts. Consequently, natural disasters were a popular, technically challenging yet rewarding motiv for painters in the following decades. In his painting from 1780 English painter Jospeh Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797) depicted the eruption of Mount Vesuvius as a sacred epiphany.


UK; 18. Century; Christian; Philosophy; Painting; Vesuvius

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