"Cotopaxi, the Great Volcano of the Andes" was first shown to the public on Broadway, in Manhattan, on March 22, 1863. Admission cost a quarter, a goodly sum in those day, but people paid it gladly. They expected to be entertained, awed, instructed, frightened, and they were not disappointed. Going to see paintings -- especially a new and otherworldly 7-foot-wide landscape by Frederic Edwin Church -- was, a century ago, much like going to the movies.

It is difficult today to imagine the thrills once evoked by paintings. Magazines could reproduce only wood engravings, all the photographs available were small and black-and-white. Enormous landscape paintings could be vastly more impressive. Those of Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and Church were rich with telling incident, unexpected detail and operatic light effects played out in full color. They carried off the viewer into exotic realms. They overwhelmed the eye. They conquered disbelief.

Their theatrics were intentional. In 1859, when Church first displayed "The Heart of the Andes" in his studio, he placed potted palms before the canvas, and conjured South American sound effects. Those who put their quarters down -- to gaze into the gorges or up into the smoky skies of Church's "Cotopaxi" -- expected an experience comparably exciting.

Church's giant painting -- with its tropical astonishments, its waterfalls and crags, its llama and its condors and its smoldering volcano -- had the impact of a cross between "The Last Days of Pompeii" and "One Million B.C."

That memorable canvas is now owned by the Detroit Institute of Arts. It is one of 37 pictures -- paintings, drawings, oil sketches -- included in "Creation and Renewal: Views of Cotopaxi by Frederic Edwin Church," a well-considered show that opened this weekend at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art.

Cotopaxi in the Andes of Ecuador is one of the planet's tallest active volcanoes. Its shape is nicely conical -- it looks something like Mount Fuji -- and while black smoke often pours from its summit (which is nearly 20,000 feet above sea level), its slopes are white with snow.

Church (1826-1900) went to see it twice, in 1853 and in 1857. Part dramatist, part scientist, he specialized in paintings of awesome natural phenomena. His "Icebergs" of 1861 (which fetched $2.5 million at Sotheby's in 1979) introduced viewers to the ship-destroying wastes of the frozen north. His grand depiction of Niagara Falls (1857) is one of the glories of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Church's exaggerations are today a bit embarrassing. He made the slopes of Cotopaxi steeper than they really are, and its surroundings stranger -- dressing up the blasted landscape with Claude Lorrain-like palms, flights of bright red parrots, conveniently placed rainbows, placid lakes and cataracts, and picturesque old ruins of his own invention. Today we tend to groan at such intentional dramatics.

Something else has drained these paintings of their power. Church's central subject has lost much of its awful, sleep-disturbing splendor.

Volcanoes, though still awesome enough, aren't as mysterious as they used to be. Today we comprehend the movements of tectonic plates that bring them into being. Hollywood special effects, sequential color photographs of Mount St. Helens exploding, and frequent evening newscasts of nicely glowing lava flows in Hawaii have partially inured us to the once-terrifying thought of mountains belching smoke.

Church was less blase'. So were his contemporaries. Volcanoes filled their minds with thoughts of modern science -- and of God. Church felt no contradiction. His teacher, Thomas Cole -- whose moralizing cycle of allegorical paintings, "The Voyage of Life," is in the National Gallery's collection -- had taught his pupils to make pictures that were spiritual and uplifting. Church's landscapes are not mere objective depictions of the far-off lands he'd visited. They are intentionally sublime.

The present exhibition was organized by guest curator Katherine Manthorne, who also wrote its useful catalogue. Two intertwining themes -- one geological, one biblical -- swirl round the volcanoes in her show.

Church, though a romantic, thought himself a naturalist and a trustworthy reporter. So did Audubon, who showed us birds, and George Catlin, who showed us Indians, and those countless marine painters, who let us study with exactitude the rigging of ships and the look of storms at sea. Church's audiences were particularly fond of those highly detailed city views and Currier & Ives lithographs which accurately depicted the look of their new land.

Like the viewers of today -- who like a bit of science mixed in with the wonders of the nature shows that they watch on TV -- Church's audiences expected to be taught as they were entertained. Cotopaxi, and much else about South America, had been brought to their attention by the popular writings of Alexander van Humboldt, the German naturalist who first visited the continent in the late 18th century. Among other things he stressed the significance of geology. Humboldt saw the world as eons old and slowly changing; volcanoes long extinct, and volcanoes still alive, had changed, or were still changing, the appearance of the planet.

The volcanoes in his writings -- and those in Church's paintings -- are an active force of nature that forms the world anew. But also something more than that: Beautiful yet dreadful, they demonstrate the presence of that gracious and yet wrathful God who created Eden's innocence and then, with fire and brimstone, destroyed Sodom for its sins.

Church's South America does not much resemble the land of politics and poverty we read about in newspapers. "To the mid-19th-century North American mind," writes Manthorne, it "represented . . . perhaps the closest approximation to the world as it existed at the beginning of time. The search for origins -- a leitmotif of the age -- propelled expanding investigation into its vast rivers and lofty mountains. Christopher Columbus had declared . . . that he had found the long-lost garden of Eden and every explorer after him traveled with the hope of relocating it."

The continent's volcanoes heightened that belief in the new world's newness. Their "floods of molten lava," observed the art magazine, the Crayon, in 1855, "are, in truth, nothing less than remaining portions of what was once the condition of the entire globe." Church filled his later Cotopaxi pictures with newly opened chasms, newly upthrust rocks, the rising morning sun, and other signs evoking the Creation of the world.

Humboldt had described Cotopaxi as both "beautiful" and "dreadful." Church's paintings suggest Eden. They also evoke hell.

Romantic, landscape-loving 19th-century artists were enthralled by the smoke, the fire and brimstone, of the world's volcanoes. J.W.M. Turner painted "Vesuvius Erupting" in 1917. Another English painter, Joseph Wright of Derby, produced many night views of the same volcano. Edward Bulwer-Lytton published his "Last Days of Pompeii" in 1834; James Fenimore Cooper's "The Crater; or Vulcan's Peak" appeared 17 years later.

The magazines of the mid-1850s regularly reported the eruptions, or threatened eruptions, of Etna and Vesuvius. The account of an "Eruption of Mauna Loa, Hawaii" in Harper's Weekly of April 16, 1859, included numerous illustrations as well as breathless descriptions of sacrifices to the goddess Pele.

Church, who in 1857 excitedly recounted an Ecuadorian eruption, was similarly enthalled by the destructive power of volcanoes. "Quito was visited by a great storm of ashes which lasted three days," he wrote. "The Natives were excessively frightened and formed nightly processions carrying the implements and images from the churches . . . The terror stricken faces, the multitude of candles, the wild music, the glittering images -- all made supernatural by a dull grey coating of ashes -- you can imagine." His Cotopaxi paintings are more than romantic landscapes. In the canvas from Detroit, the observer's point of view is godlike -- he floats there in mid-air, above the boiling water, beside the light-washed cliffs, staring at the risen sun of what might be the world's first dawn. Conical Cotopaxi smokes grandly in the distance, an awesome, complex symbol of the land-creating, land-destroying hand of the living God.

Manthorne also detects in Church's paintings hints of mid-19th-century history, the conclusion of the Mexican War, the recent acquisition of Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and California, and, in the pall of smoke above the scene, what might be a suggestion of the Civil War. Her little exhibition, handsomely installed, is not only good to look at, it also provokes thought. It closes July 14.