Poland’s Wieliczka Salt Mine: An Underground Wonder


There’s something alluring about underground spaces. Whether it’s the ancient subterranean cities of Cappadocia in Turkey or the alternative art galleries of the Paris catacombs, humanity’s works underground take on a strange and mysterious feeling.

Perhaps there is no underground space more strange and mysterious than the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow, Poland. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was a salt mine from the 13th century until as recently as 1996. In that time the miners excavated 190 miles of tunnels reaching a depth of more than 1,000 feet. During the mine’s high point in the 16th and 17th centuries, some 2,000 miners worked there digging out 30,000 tons a year.

Salt was hugely important in the premodern world. Not only was it vital for nutrition, but it also helped to preserve meat and other edibles in the days before refrigeration. Several countries, including Poland and Ethiopia, even used salt as currency in addition to coins.

Not content with simply mining salt and making a living, the salt miners carved elaborate statues and scenes out of the salt, including a large chapel complete with “crystal” chandeliers made with purified rock salt. The salt in its natural state is gray, and so it resembles granite. Many of the sculptures are religious in nature, showing Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. Others show miners and folk figures such as gnomes.

%Gallery-158467%The guided tour takes intrepid travelers on a 1.9-mile route through various tunnels, rooms and even an underground lake. Constantly descending, the group makes their way through dozens of decorated rooms. As this video shows, it’s an unforgettable experience. Also check out the photo gallery for some excellent images of this odd attraction.

The simpler carvings done in the Renaissance and early modern periods are the most interesting to my eye, since they were crafted by regular people out of faith and a sense of fun. Now contemporary artists are getting in on the act and there are many new sculptures, including one of Pope John Paul II, who was from Poland and visited the mine before he became pontiff. The centuries-old mine is continuing to grow and develop.

Interested in seeing more strange underground dwellings? Check out our articles on salt mine tours and underground cities.

Medieval Frescoes By Giotto Threatened By Construction Project

medieval, Giotto, Padua
Priceless frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, may be damaged by a nearby construction project, experts say.

The frescoes were painted by Giotto di Bondone around 1305 and are considered a high point in medieval art. They depict the life of Jesus and the Last Judgement and were painted for the private chapel of a rich banker. The figures’ lifelike style and naturalistic poses anticipated the realism of Renaissance art.

Now the construction of a skyscraper nearby threatens to seriously damage the delicate paintings, according to three scholars who have started a petition to halt the project. They say the building will affect drainage in the area, causing the water level to rise. This would increase humidity and all lead subsidence of the walls, both of which would damage the medieval paintings.

A previous, smaller building proposal was postponed for the same reason but the skyscraper has been approved by the municipality. At the time of this writing the petition already had 1892 signatures.

[Image of “The Kiss of Judas” courtesy Flickr user Carla216]

New trail for medieval church paintings in England

medieval church paintingsThe church of St Mary the Virgin in the little village of Lakenheath, Suffolk, England, contains a treasure trove of medieval church paintings. They were discovered 130 years ago when Victorian workmen were cleaning off centuries of grime and lime wash from the walls.

What they found was a series of detailed paintings of religious subjects painted from c.1220-c.1610. The church was repainted five times in that period.

A few years ago it was noticed that exposure to air, light, and moisture was destroying the paintings, and a painstaking restoration project was launched. The Lakenheath Wall Paintings Project has since restored the paintings and interpreted all five periods. Reconstructions of how the church looked during these periods can be seen on the website, as well as a rich gallery of closeup shots of the paintings.

They’ve also designed a cool Suffolk Wall Painting Trail that you can download for free. Suffolk is especially rich in wall paintings with several churches clustered together, making them easy to visit.

To learn more about this style of art, check out my review and photo gallery of the book Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches.

It was not possible to obtain permission to use one of the Lakenheath photos at press time. The above photo, of souls sheltering under the cloak of the Virgin Mary, is from the church of St John the Baptist, Byford. It’s similar in style to the paintings at Lakenheath.

Medieval manuscripts in Los Angeles and London

Medieval manuscriptsTwo major exhibitions on opposite sides of the globe are focusing on the art of medieval manuscript illumination.

At the Getty Center in Los Angeles, a show has just opened highlighting the burst in creativity and education in what is popularly called the Gothic period. Gothic Grandeur: Manuscript Illumination, 1200–1350 features books from this important period, when educated Europe created a huge demand for illustrated manuscripts.

Looking at these works of art instantly dispels the popular notion that the Middle Ages were a low period in civilization. In fact, it was a time of great artistic creativity and innovation. Even though the Church tried to create an orthodox mode of thinking, science and basic questions of philosophy were able to advance, albeit slowly. Even existentialism had a place. Just read the opening chapter of St. Augustine’s Confessions if you don’t believe me.

The exhibition mainly draws on Getty’s impressive permanent collection, including recent prize acquisitions such as the Abbey Bible, one of the finest Gothic illuminated manuscripts ever made. Also of interest is the Northumberland Bestiary, a mid-13th century encyclopedia of animals.

In London, the British Library is running Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. This collection of 150 manuscripts from the library’s collection date from the 8th to the 16th century and depict royalty through the ages. Some were even owned by kings and queens, such as a psalter with marginal notations by Henry VIII. The exhibition not only covers the royalty about and for whom the books were created, but also the artists who create them. Not all were monks as commonly believed. Many books were made by professional freelance artists who hustled for commissions from the rich and powerful. Not much has changed!

Gothic Grandeur: Manuscript Illumination, 1200–1350 has two installations, one running to 26 February 2012 and the next running from 28 February to 13 May 2012. Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination runs until 13 March 2012.

Photo courtesy British Library.

Is the Romulus and Remus statue a copy from the Middle Ages?

Romulus and Remus
It’s one of the most famous symbols of ancient Rome–the legendary Romulus and Remus suckling from a she-wolf. Legend has it the brothers were born to a Vestal Virgin who had been abducted by the war god Mars. Abandoned, they were raised by a she-wolf. As adults they fought each other. Romulus killed Remus and went on to build Rome. The statue graces Rome’s Capitoline Museum and is photographed by tens of thousands of visitors every year.

But it may date from centuries after Rome fell.

In fact, it may date from the Middle Ages. The bronze wolf has long thought to be Etruscan, an ancient Italian culture that predated the Romans. Modern carbon dating shows it wasn’t made in the 5th century BC but rather the 13th century AD. The babies are known to have been added in the 15th century. The tests on the wolf were conducted five years ago and were shrugged off by the Capitoline Museum as inconclusive.

Now scholars are saying the museum was wrong to dismiss the results and have pointed out that the statue was cast as a single piece, something the Etruscans and Romans couldn’t do with a statue so large. Medieval artisans could. It’s possible the present statue was a copy produced from an earlier statue that was, indeed Etruscan. It’s impossible to say.

The museum is adding this “alternate theory” to its literature, although that doesn’t mean they’re giving up on the Etruscan theory just yet.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.