It is no surprise that, being the center of Christian worship in the city since 1283, Chester Cathedral has many depictions of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The cathedral is over 700 years old, so seeing a cobweb or two would be expected. However, Chester Cathedral is home to a set of cobwebs that actually comprise a rare piece of artwork. It is the only cobweb picture in the United Kingdom, and it is one of only a few that still exist.
The art of cobweb painting, or gossamer, involves gathering, cleaning, then layering the silky excretions of web-spinning insects such as spiders and caterpillars to form a canvas. Since a vast number of webs were needed to build a single canvas, many people were employed solely to collect them.
The example in Chester Cathedral depicts a baby Jesus in the arms of his mother, the Virgin Mary. It was painstakingly painted on a fragile canvas of a moth caterpillar’s silken cocoon. The cocoon had to be unraveled into sticky threads and cleansed of insect parts and droppings before being pressed into a frame and stiffened with a brush of milk.
The fashion of cobweb painting seems to have begun in 16th-century Austria, specifically in the Tyrolean Alps, where monasteries and convents would produce these micro meticulous masterpieces. Chester Cathedral’s painting is believed to be from the 19th-century and is one of a few that have survived the times.
Know Before You Go
The picture is located in the north transept, which is just north of the cathedral's central crossing. When facing away from the center of the cathedral, the picture can be found in a niche to the right.
The cathedral is open from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm on Monday through Saturday and from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm on Sunday. The cathedral is free to visit, but donations are appreciated.