Wieliczka Salt Mine – An Astounding Subterranean Salt Cathedral
From the outside, Wieliczka Salt Mine doesn’t look extraordinary.
It looks extremely well kept for a place that hasn’t minded 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.
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.
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.
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.