Published on May 22, 2013
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Monday, August 01, 2011
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Far more of Timbuktu’s priceless ancient manuscripts were saved from Islamist attacks than previosly thought, according to information from the German Foreign Ministry.
More than 200,000 of the documents, or about 80 percent of them, were smuggled to safety, says the ministry, which aided in the operation.
The ministry said many of the manuscripts, some of which date back to the 13th century, were driven out of Timbuktu in private vehicles and taken to the Malian capital, Bamako. Some of them were hidden under lettuce and fruit in an operation led by the head of the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library, Abdel Kader Haidara.
The German embassy paid for the fuel and procured archival boxes to store 4,000 of the manuscripts. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the priority now was to catalogue the manuscripts and preserve them for posterity.
“We are ready to support the reconstruction of the library in Timbuktu,” said Westerwelle.
|The figurine dates back to 6,500 years ago and is named “El Encantat de Begues.”
CREDIT: University of Barcelona
It’s missing a head and some limbs, but an “enchanted” ceramic idol recently unearthed near Barcelona is thought to be the most ancient human figurine ever found in Spain, archaeologists say.
The 3-inch (8-centimeter)-long pottery fragment was uncovered over the summer during excavations at Can Sadurní cave in Begues, Barcelona province — a site perhaps best known for the discovery of the oldest evidence of beer-drinking in Europe. Researchers say the statuette is 6,500 years old, making it the most ancient human figurine from Catalonia, as well as the whole Iberian Peninsula.
The majority of Neolithic idols found in the Mediterranean are female, but the lack of breasts on the torso suggests this figurine is male, the researchers said. Holes in the arms indicate it was strung up with a cord or a leather strap to be used as a necklace or to decorate a cave home.
The figure is thought to have had some religious or spiritual importance, and “all its characteristics point towards what, in prehistory, can be defined as an idol,” read a statement about the discovery from the University of Barcelona.
Because of its possibly magical significance and the fact that Begues residents are sometimes given the Catalan nickname “Els Encantats” (“The Enchanted”), archaeologists have called the figurine “El Encantat de Begues.”
The lower limbs seem to be attached to the torso at an angle, suggesting, the researchers believe, that when the figurine was whole it would have been in a sitting position or would have had its legs bent. From what’s left of its arms, the archaeologists believe its upper limbs were outstretched. The team also speculates that the figure’s head would have been mobile and interchangeable, fitting into the neck-hole like a puzzle piece.
The dig at Can Sadurní is led by researchers from the University of Barcelona and the organization CIPAG (Collectiu per la Investigació de la Prehistòria i l’Arqueologia del Garraf-Ordal). The team hopes further excavations at the site will turn up other fragments of the figurine.
By Martin Gayford
European art galleries are preparing for a bumper crop of openings for the autumn season. After the London Olympics and big-name shows to accompany the games, museum directors are determined to continue with events that boost visitor numbers.
The U.K. Royal Academy celebrates artworks in bronze; Tate Britain shows Pre-Raphaelites; the London National Gallery explores photography. In Paris, the Louvre shows Raphael masterpieces.
Left, “Astarte Syriaca,” 1877, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This painting will be included in “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde” at Tate Britain from Sept. 12 to Jan. 13.
“The Pretty Baa-Lambs,” 1851-1859, by Ford Madox Brown. The exhibition at Tate Britain will argue that the Pre-Raphaelites were an early example of a rebellious group of avant-garde artists.
“The Lady of Shalott,” 1886-1905, a painting by William Holman Hunt. The subject is from a poem by Tennyson
It is common for an exhibition to be devoted to an artist, style or period — but unusual to give top billing to a medium. “Bronze” at the Royal Academy (Sept. 15 to Dec. 9) boldly does just that. It consists of works made in many diverse areas of the world from the third millennium B.C. to 2012.
Left, portrait of King Seuthes III, bronze, Thracian, fourth century B.C. This work will be included in “Bronze” at the Royal Academy, London from Sept. 15 to Dec. 9.
“Dancing Satyr,” bronze, Greek, Hellenistic period, third to second centuries B.C. This sculpture was discovered off the coast of Sicily in 1998.
“Spider IV,” 1996, bronze by Louise Bourgeois. The Royal Academy exhibition “Bronze” contains works from the third millennium B.C. to the present.