I have been in most of the cathedrals in South America partly because they are usually one ‘of the places to visit’ but mostly because they provide a fascinating mixture of Catholicism, paganism, local culture and no small measure of skilled artisanship. However, I have to report that the most unusual of all of the cathedrals is the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira, located about an hour’s drive north of Bogota in Colombia. It is the centre piece of a halite mine that has been active since the 5th century BC.
Here is a place born of poor miners who would pray to god to spare them from death or injury before going on a long and arduous shift. Health and safety wasn’t (and still isn’t) near the top of the Latin American conscious and, if a miner died or suffered an injury leaving a family without a breadwinner, well, that was just tough.
Over the years, the chapels dug into the rock by the miners developed until a vast temple was excavated underground that had three sections representing the birth, life and death of Jesus. By all accounts it was magnificent. I say this because I haven’t actually seen it. This Cathedral is in a part of the mine that has now been closed down but, no matter, the intrepid Colombian miners started again (this time with ‘official’ help) and built a stunning new place of worship in another area of the mine.
This time the architectural and artistic design was the inspiration of Bogotan architect Roswell Garavito following a competition involving 44 proposals. With the miners working alongside him, they set about shifting 250,000 tons of salt to carve out the ethereal underground sanctuary which is now heralded as one of Colombia’s greatest architectural and engineering achievements. Also known as the “jewel of modern architecture”, the Cathedral represents to the Colombians a valuable cultural, environmental and religious patrimony.
While a functioning place of worship (it has as many as 3,000 visitors on a Sunday!) it has no bishop and, therefore, no official status as a cathedral in Catholicism. This seems a bit churlish on the part of the Vatican who, having not been involved, probably have a ‘not invented here’ attitude towards the entire concept.
Fashioned as a surreal walk, the entrance is a tunnel, lit like a teenage disco, that takes us down into the bowels of the earth. After a few minutes, during which our eyes become accustomed to the semi-darkness, we come to the first of fourteen small chapels each representing the last journey of Jesus and each an eerily lit triumph of religious symbolism and mining. All of the chapels involve expert stage craft that has a deeply moving power and potency on every visitor.
The trail’s culmination, 190 metres below ground, is the stunning three part cavernous, main nave where a towering cross, 4 metres high, is illuminated from the base upwards towards heaven itself. The back lighting of the cross is in deep blue and purple that combines with the darkness to engender a spiritual feeling inside the soul. The effect upon many around us was to drop to their knees in prayer or submission to mystical divinity.
It is a truly amazing place, particularly when you stop to marvel at how this vast undertaking has been achieved via a partnership of art, artisanship and architecture. The Colombians have pulled off something quite unique.