There is no shortage of variety when it comes to architecture within the Church: some are even built completely below the earth. This is the story of Saint Kinga and the world’s biggest underground church carved completely out of salt.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine in southern Poland has been in use since medieval times with excavation starting around the 13th century. Reaching down over a thousand feet, and extending horizontally almost two hundred miles, the mine over its eight centuries of use became a mosaic of salt carvings. Workers would carve religious imagery into the rock, and when they wanted somewhere to pray, whole chapels. The most famous of which is Saint Kinga’s Chapel, often called Poland’s Underground Salt Cathedral.
Tradition says Saint Kinga was due to be married to Bolesław V the Chaste, the prince of Kraków. For dowry, she asked her father Béla IV of Hungary for a lump of salt, a prize worthy commodity in Poland. Taken to a Hungarian salt mine by her father, she cast her engagement into a mine shaft before leaving for Poland. When she arrived, she asked miners to dig a deep pit until they came upon a rock. They found a lump of salt, and splitting it in two found the ring of Saint Kinga. For her miraculous role in the discovery of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, Saint Kinga was entrusted with the patronage of salt miners.
The Chapel of Saint Kinga was carved in her honor, and is located around 330 feet deep below the ground, totaling nearly 5000 square feet and 36 feet tall. Carved completely out of salt, even the two grand chandeliers hanging from the ceiling are made of salt crystals. It’s adorned with salt relief carvings of the Nativity, Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and more. Behind the main altar sits a statue of Saint Kinga carved out of salt.
The altar contains two relics, one of Saint Kinga and also one of Pope Saint John Paul II. The late pontiff visited three times, once as a cardinal and twice as a child. Saint Kinga was eventually canonized by John Paul II on June 16, 1999. Showing their appreciation, mine maintainers sculpted a rock-salt of statue of John Paul II. Cardinal Franciszek Macharski who consecrated the figure after its completion, called it a “true and natural
image” of the Pope himself.
In 1978, the mine was classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site, today drawing over a million visitors yearly. Mass is celebrated in the chapel every Sunday and on special feast days, being used for weddings or sacred concerts at other times.