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The most unusual church in the world

September 30, 2011

Wieliczka

Salt Mine – An Astounding Subterranean Salt Cathedral

Deep underground in Poland lies something remarkable but little

known outside Eastern Europe . For centuries, miners have extracted salt

there, but left behind things quite startling and unique. Take a look at the

most unusual salt mine in the world.

From the outside, Wieliczka Salt Mine doesn’t look extraordinary.

It looks extremely well kept for a place that hasn’t mined any salt for

over ten years but apart from that it looks ordinary. However, over two

hundred meters below ground it holds an astonishing secret. This is the salt

mine that became an art gallery, cathedral and underground

lake.

Image Credit Flickr User teachandlearn

Situated in the Krakow area, Wieliczka is a small town of close

to twenty thousand inhabitants. It was founded in the twelfth century by a

local Duke to mine the rich deposits of salt that lie beneath. Until 1996 it

did just that but the generations of miners did more than just extract. They

left behind them a breathtaking record of their time underground in the

shape of statues of mythic, historical and religious figures. They even

created their own chapels in which to pray. Perhaps their most astonishing

legacy is the huge underground cathedral they left behind for

posterity.

It may feel like you are in the middle of a Jules Verne adventure

as you descend in to the depths of the world. After a one hundred and fifty

meter climb down wooden stairs the visitor to the salt mine will see some

amazing sites. About the most astounding in terms of its sheer size and

audacity is the Chapel of Saint Kinga. The Polish people have for many

centuries been devout Catholics and this was more than just a long term

hobby to relieve the boredom of being underground. This was an act of

worship.

Amazingly, even the chandeliers in the cathedral are made of

salt. It was not simply hewn from the ground and then thrown together;

however, the process is rather more painstaking for the lighting. After

extraction the rock salt was first of all dissolved. It was then

reconstituted with the impurities taken out so that it achieved a glass-like

finish. The chandeliers are what many visitors think the rest of the

cavernous mine will be like as they have a picture in their minds of salt as

they would sprinkle on their meals! However, the rock salt occurs naturally

in different shades of grey (something like you would expect granite to look

like).

Still, that doesn’t stop well over one million visitors (mainly

from Poland and its eastern European neighbors) from visiting the mine to

see, amongst other things, how salt was mined in the

past.

For safety reasons less than one percent of the mine is open to

visitors, but even that is still almost four kilometers in length – more

than enough to weary the average tourist after an hour or two. The mine was

closed for two reasons – the low price of salt on the world market made it

too expensive to extract here. Also, the mine was slowly flooding – another

reason why visitors are restricted to certain areas

only.

The religious carvings are, in reality, what draw many to this

mine – as much for their amazing verisimilitude as for their Christian

aesthetics. The above shows Jesus appearing to the apostles after the

crucifixion. He shows the doubter, Saint Thomas , the wounds on his

wrists.

Another remarkable carving, this time a take on The Last Supper.

The work and patience that must have gone in to the creation of these

sculptures is extraordinary. One wonders what the miners would have thought

of their work going on general display? They came to be quite used to it, in

fact, even during the mine’s busiest period in the nineteenth century. The

cream of Europe ’s thinkers visited the site – you can still see many of

their names in the old visitor’s books on display.

These reliefs are perhaps among some of the most iconographic

works of Christian folk art in the world and really do deserve to be shown.

It comes as little surprise to learn that the mine was placed on the

original list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites back in

1978.

Image Credit Flickr User magro_kr

Image Credit Flickr User magro kr

Not all of the work is relief-based. There are many life sized

statues that must have taken a considerable amount of time – months, perhaps

even years – to create. Within the confines of the mine there is also much

to be learned about the miners from the machinery and tools that they used –

many of which are on display and are centuries old. A catastrophic flood in

1992 dealt the last blow to commercial salt mining in the area and now the

mine functions purely as a tourist attraction. Brine is, however, still

extracted from the mine – and then evaporated to produce some salt, but

hardly on the ancient scale. If this was not done, then the mines would soon

become flooded once again.

Not all of the statues have a religious or symbolic imagery

attached to them. The miners had a sense of humor, after all! Here can be

seen their own take on the legend of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The

intricately carved dwarves must have seemed to some of the miners a kind of

ironic depiction of their own work.

The miners even threw in a dragon for good measure! Certainly,

they may have whistled while they did it but the conditions in the salt mine

were far from comfortable and the hours were long – the fact that it was

subterranean could hardly have added to the excitement of going to work each

morning.

To cap it all there is even an underground lake, lit by subdued

electricity and candles. This is perhaps where the old legends of lakes to

the underworld and Catholic imagery of the saints work together to best

leave a lasting impression of the mine. How different a few minutes

reflection here must have been to the noise and sweat of everyday working
life in the mine

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