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Travelogue B4

November 10, 2014

I spent the better part of an afternoon in the Wieliczka salt mine in the once prosperous town of the same name. The mine had itself closed for commercial operation fourteen years before but has been giving guided tours of one sort or another for over two hundred years. Included in the mine’s hundreds of chambers are some forty chapels, carved out by miners in the dark grey rock salt in the years since the mine’s opening in the 13th century.

Carved armless and headless saints people the wings of Kaplica św. Antoniego, the Chapel of St. Anthony, situated next to the main shaft which the visitor descends by means of 378 steps to reach this level. Humidity has eroded these statues over the course of decades, humidity brought in by the nearby shaft and numerous visitors. Indeed, so I inferred from the guide, with enough saliva and breath and time, an individual could unmake one of these statues in a lifetime underground.

At the rear of the chapel, away from the pews, stand Saints Peter and Paul, who, at first, appear better preserved than those faceless and, hence, nameless saints assembled before the altar. As per the popular expression, this appearance is mere deception, Peter and Paul having been installed in this chapel only 120 years ago, in contrast to the three centuries the others have spent in this place, centuries over the course of which their stature has steadily diminished. The guide is quick to assure us that, in time, Peter and Paul will be reduced to a similar state.

Perhaps half a dozen chambers later, we are greeted by the sight of two dummies, faces in wax, sprawled on their stomachs in the space beneath a ledge, this space perhaps half a meter in height. The space serves as a visual foil, intended to illustrate the task assigned to certain employees of the mine, known informally as “penitents”. These employees crawled on hands and knees through narrow tunnels into newly opened shafts and passages. Their duty was to test the air of these new passages for methane. To this end, they bore torches, composed of cloth and pitch and sticks, which were then bound to the end of a long pole with which they probed the darkness ahead of them. If a concentration of more than 5% methane hung in the air before them, the flame would react with the gas, resulting in an explosion of no small magnitude, burning out the gas and potentially their lives. I noted that the dummies hold replicas of these contraptions, albeit tipped with small electrical bulbs and soft orange halos.

Some rooms later, we came upon Kaplica św. Krzyża, the Chapel of the Holy Cross. Unlike other chapels or chambers, most of the carvings displayed here are those of professionals rather than the miners themselves. This shows particularly in the crucifix, hung on one wall, worked in a rich brown wood, lovingly detailed. Like others, I was somewhat taken aback to learn that it is carved of a single trunk, large enough to yield Christ and cross.

As in Kaplica św. Antoniego, the miners did contribute certain pieces. In particular, my attention came to rest upon two monks knelt before the crucifix, their shins pressed to the black tile floor. They are now faceless, and their hands seem shockingly out of proportion with the rest of their bodies. Hands larger than heads, hands larger than limbs. These two originally called home a chamber on an upper level, one far above this chamber. They were brought here expressly to slow the rate of their decay, yet I failed to remark just how old they might be. My eyes had settled on an altar, directly opposite the crucifix. Above the altar a dove is forever poised in flight, although its grey salt coloring brings to mind a pigeon rather than a godsend.

Shortly thereafter, I followed the rest of the group onto a balcony overlooking Kaplica św. Kingi, the Chapel of Kingi. Of the mine’s chapels, it happens to be the most famous and, perhaps as a cause of the former, the world’s most subterranean chapel. Somewhat unimpressed, I listened to the guide detail how the room was carved over a period of 67 years by three miners. Notably, these three did not work simultaneously, instead succeeding one another in shifts or over the course of years; the well-dressed guide does not offer the precise details or sequence of their non-simultaneity.

The chapel is named for the patron saint of salt mines, and her finger bone relic resides in the cross, now behind glass, set within the altar. Numerous carvings in large format divvy up the wall space, portraying various biblical scenes, including among their number the Last Supper, Jesus’ turning water into wine, Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem, and a few others. Several statues stand in the nooks and corners, namely another saint of miners and John Paul II, former archbishop of Krakow. There are also those statues above the altar that can come as no surprise in Catholic spaces: the Virgin and the Infant and the Crucifix.

A room with a pool, Barącza Wybrana W Latach, several chambers and twenty minutes later, is the next chamber of which I have some memory. The water itself is divided into two atria, used as a catch-pool for water that would later be pumped from the mine. The liquid is a 23% salt solution, more than enough to float upon and, effectively, be unable to drown, comparable with the Dead Sea or the Great Salt Lakes.

A somewhat narrowed liquid isthmus connects the two pools, round and blue-green. Coins sit on the rocky bottom, which, at its deepest, measures some eight meters, with a temperature of roughly 14 degrees Celsius. In the light emanating from bulbs carefully positioned about the chamber’s walls, I could make out the most fragile of mineral formations in the water. Composed of salt, these crystalline structures hang motionless in the water, caught in a state somewhere between formation and dissolution. They brought to mind a juice’s pulp, but slender and elongated and delicate.

The gradual accumulation of brine about the water’s edge striates the rock surrounding the pool. The boxy cliff formations are, of course, carved; all bodies of water in the mine are artificial and range from streams to waterworks to pools like this one. Light reflects off the pool in ribbons, which stripe the walls in irregular, fitful motion. The false bluffs are topped by a balcony, which surrounds the pool on all sides. In the dim light, the wood takes on a reddish tint, rendering unclear what the tree of origin might be. Tempted though I was to linger about the pool and contemplate the crystals further, the choice was not left to me.

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