It’s 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 one would expect to see a cobweb or two. However, Chester Cathedral is home to a set of cobwebs that actually comprise a rare piece of artwork. It’s the only cobweb picture in the United Kingdom and 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. The vast number of webs needed to build a single canvas meant 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.