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Monday 29 July 2013

More Underground Art

I did a post a couple of years ago about the Underground Art at the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Kraków in Poland, but now that I’ve been there myself I can do another one using my own photographs. The mine is one of the great man-made wonders of the world, and has been a tourist attraction for centuries. One reason for this is its sheer scale – it consists of over 200 kilometres of tunnels on nine levels linking around 3000 artificial caverns or “chambers” with a total volume of ~7,500,000 cubic metres. Unfortunately none of this comes across very well in photographs, which make everything look much smaller than it actually is.

The picture at the top shows the chapel of Saint Kinga, which is the only one I took that gives a reasonable impression of scale. The chapel is 54 metres long, 15 metres wide and 10 metres high (180×50×33 feet). There are half a dozen other chambers on the tourist route of a similar volume, although most of them are taller and narrower (the tourist route covers a mere 3% of the whole complex – just 2 kilometres of tunnels on the uppermost three levels).

Easier to capture in photographs are the various images carved out of salt that can be found along the tourist route. These are relatively recent, most of them dating from the last hundred years – during which time the mine’s main source of income gradually shifted from salt extraction to tourism. Here is a famous carving I mentioned in my earlier post, based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (with my cousin and myself standing in front of it, just to prove I really was there).
Over the centuries the mine has had many famous visitors, three of whom are shown in the next picture. The astronomer Copernicus visited in 1493, when he was a student in nearby Kraków. Goethe, the great German polymath, visited almost 300 years later in 1790 – apparently in one of his lesser known roles as mining adviser to the Duke of Weimar. Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyła) visited during the 15-year period, in the 1960s and 70s, that he served as Archbishop of Kraków.
Saint Kinga is the legendary founder of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. She was a real person, the daughter of a 13th century King of Hungary, although the story of the founding of the mine appears to be pure legend. In real life she was a devoutly religious person who sold all her material possessions to lead a life of contemplative prayer – she was made a saint by Pope John Paul II in 1999. The scene below depicts the legendary version of Kinga.
Another legend associated with the mine is that of the Skarbnik (or Treasurer), which I also mentioned in my previous post. There are supposed to be numerous spirits and other supernatural entities inhabiting the mine, but the Skarbnik is the most powerful of these, guarding the mine’s treasures and protecting miners from danger. The statue of the Skarbnik shown below comes at the very end of the tourist route, 135 metres (440 feet) below ground level.

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