Exploring Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral

Stained-glass windows, ornate wooden effigies, intricately painted ceilings and gilded cornices: these are the images that spring to mind when the word ‘cathedral’ is uttered. What lies fifty kilometres north of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, is an altogether different manifestation of the word…

Reaching down 200 metres below the earth’s surface is an enormous, subterranean structure made from an unusual building material: salt. The Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral was first built in 1954 while the halite mines that have been exploited there since pre-Columbian times were still in use. Its cavernous halls could hold up to 8,000 worshippers and it was hailed as a jewel in Colombian architecture’s crown. In 1992, however, the cathedral was declared unsafe by the authorities and it closed its doors.

A contest to design a replacement cathedral was announced and the winning entry came from Colombian architect, Roswell Garavito Pearl, with his vision being brought to life within a few years, by 1995. The concept behind the new cathedral is that visitors will be taken on a journey as they walk through its dimly lit tunnels: each chamber you pass through represents one of the Stations of the Cross and the different stages of Jesus’ long walk to his crucifixion.

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The first thing that hits you as you descend into the cathedral is the smell. Sulphurous, heady and damp it’s enough to make your stomach convulse, but as you head deeper and deeper underground you forget about the odours and focus instead on the sights. Artfully illuminated and skilfully carved, the 14 small chapels which represent the Stations of the Cross are each dominated by unique crucifixes: a cross carved low into the ground symbolises ‘When Jesus falls’; ‘When Jesus meets his mother’ is represented by a cross set in a round alcove, intended to echo the roundness of the female form, and a gradual shift from haut-relief to bas-relief crosses signifies Jesus eventual demise.

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Finally, you enter the cathedral’s pièce de résistance: a yawning, capacious sanctuary stretches out before you as you stand on a balcony and survey the rows of pews below. A giant, purple cross steals the show and grows ever greater as you descend to ‘ground level’. Four immense pillars represent the Four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and narrow cracks in the walls (a reference to Jesus’ birth, life and death) lead you to three small naves.

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Not the most theistic of people, I visit cathedrals and other religious places for their architectural beauty and I must admit, at Zipaquirá I struggled to engage fully with the artistic interpretation of this biblical event. I was nonetheless blown away by the scale and engineering of this salty, underground structure and have to say that, once you get used to the smell, it is a fascinating experience!

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