Vegder's Blog

November 17, 2017

Welcome to my web – spiders (蜘蛛) in Japanese art and elsewhere

“…beads of morning dew not long for this world glistening jewel-like on a fragile spider’s web,
or wispy clouds dissolving into nothingness evoked impermanence…”

Photo of a spider web after a rain shower,
taken and posted by Snowdrop at her web log at

(The quote above this gorgeous photo is from Parody, Irony and Ideology in the Fiction of Ihara Saikaku by David Gundry on page 23.)

The amazing thing is that the spider in Japan gets to have it both ways…

T. Volker in his book on The Animal in Far Eastern Art… noted: “”The spider, kumo, was either an innocent, even a favourable, being or an evil demon as seen, either from the point of view of a woman or a poet, or from that of a warrior; as met with either during the daytime or at night. For on the one hand the spider is an emblem of hability and industry, on the other hand of ruse and sorcery. And as soon as mankind was asleep, spiders became monstrously big. A spider in the morning means an invitation to a “chanoyu“, a teaceremony [sic], and a spider in the evening means that robbers are to be expected. This foretelling capacity of the spider is well known in Europe too, for as the French saying is: “Araignee au matin: chagrin, au midi: plaisir, an soir: grand espoir“.”

My loose translation of the French saying quoted above is: “A spider in the morning means sorrow, in the afternoon pleasure and in the evening great hope.”

Let’s start with the spider as a symbol of the dark side – tsuchigumo (土蜘蛛)

Sakata no Kintoki killing the tsuchigumo or Earth Spider – 1806
Katsukawa Shun’ei (勝川春英 – 1762-1819)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Now I will dive into the weeds of the tsuchigumo (or Tsuchigumo) issue: what exactly was it?

According to a lot of great scholars the early Japanese – as we know them today – referred to other native peoples derogatorily as  ‘earth-spiders.’ Why? Because many of these other early people lived either in caves or in holes in the ground. In the Kojiki it says in Book 2, Chapter 52:

When [Kamu-yamatö-ipare-biko-nö-mikötö] arrived at the great pit dwelling of Osaka, 
there were eighty mighty men with tails, of the Tuti-gumo, waiting inside the pit-dwelling 
with great clamor.

Then the child of the heavenly deities commanded that a banquet be given the eighty mighty men.

The banquet was a ruse. The emperor Jimmu’s men who are supposed to serve a feast to the pit dwellers were also told to carry their weapons with them. Then, when a particular song was begun, Jimmu’s men would cut down their guests, thus conquering that part of Japan.

Katsukawa Shuntei (勝川春亭 – 1770-1824) triptych
Ritsumeikan University Library

So, you are probably asking yourself – and I am being sarcastic here: “Who would ever apply a demeaning name to another group of people.” My question: “Who doesn’t?”

When I was younger, I was sent off in the early 1970s to a prep-school in Arizona for a year – a great experience. I was assigned to the last room in a dorm called ‘West Papago’. I was told that the dorm was named after a native tribe. It wasn’t until I was reading an article in the New York Times from September 9, 1990 that I read the truth: “In other cases Indian names have been found offensive because they came from a hostile tribe. The name of those inhabiting the Papago Reservation in Arizona was changed to Tohono O’dham when it was discovered that the name Papago, given them by another tribe, means ”Bean-eaters.” The name of the reservation, however, can only be changed by Congress.” If I had been reading the Times more assiduously in 1979, June 24th to be exact, I would have read that it was the Pima tribe that gave them that name. I even have a faint memory of having read that early Spanish explorers might have been the ones who asked the Pima, “What is the name of those people over there?” The Pima, naturally, said: “The bean-eaters.” But, who knows? Memories can be a tricky thing and I do admit that I have a tendency at the least to embellish. [Salvador Dali once said that everything he said was a lie. And yet we quote many of those lies today as if they were the Gospel truth. My point… you can figure this one out.]

“Jumping spider looking at me”
Posted at Wikipedia Commons by coniferconifer

In the Tsuchigumo zōshi there is a description of what happened after Raikō and Tsuna finally slayed the monster:

“In a lighting flash, Raikō unsheathed his broken sword and decapitated it. As Tsuna moved to open the creature’s
great belly, he found a deep gash in the middle of…. [where Raikō had slashed at the apparition of a great beauty in
an old abandoned, dilapidated house earlier. She vanished into thin air, but left a trail of white blood which led
them to the monster’s cave.] From the sword’s incision, 1,990 heads poured out. When they cut open its flank,
numerous small spiders about the size of seven- or eight year-old children noisily trotted about. When they looked
further into the stomach, they found very small skulls, numbering around twenty. The warriors dug a grave in the
ground and buried the skulls, then set fire to the monster’s den.”

Yoritmitsu and his men attacking the Earth Spider
This triptych is by Utagawa Yoshitsuya (歌川芳艶 – 1822-66) and dates from ca. 1850.
We have put it here – out of chronological order – because it looks so much like the photograph above it.

Jules Michelet (1798-1874), speaking about spiders in the 1875 English edition of L’Insecte (originally published in 1858), noted:

The worst of it is, as far as the poor creature is concerned, that it is profoundly ugly.
It is not one of those which, ugly to the naked eye, are rehabilitated by the microscope.”
[The bold type is my choice.]

Watanabe no Tsuna and Sakata Kintoki playing go in a room with monsters
In the background are Hirai Yasumasa and Minamoto Yorimitsu (Raikō)
by Utagawa Kunisada (歌川国貞 – 1786-1864)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Utagawa Kuninaga (歌川国長 – died in 1827 or 1829)
Harvard Museums

The Earth Spider – 1843
Utagawa Sadahide (歌川貞秀 – 1807-73)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Four Retainers of Raikō and the Monster Candle (四天王化物蝋燭)
Anonymous 1868
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Scene from the kabuki dance piece Tsuchigumo – 1866
Toyohara Kunichika (豊原国周 1835-1900)

The Kunichika triptych shown above illustrates a scene from a play written by Kawatake Mokuami (1816-93), the playwright who more than anyone else tried to bring the traditional kabuki theater into a new age. His work was based on older kabuki plays, which in turn were based on older Nō theater productions, which themselves were based on much older mythic tales.

Leave it to Yoshitoshi to give us another variation on this story 

Prince Kurokumo receiving special powers from the Earth Spider – 1867
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (月岡芳年 – 1839-92)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Ashmolean Museum at Oxford owns another copy of this print. Their curatorial files state: “Here the earth spider transfers magical powers to Prince Kurokumo to help him plot revenge on his enemy, the tenth-century warrior Minamoto no Yorimitsu (also known as Raikō).”

The Earth Spider often took the form or a beautiful, seductive woman with a come-hither look in her eye

Kabuki theater particularly loved staging performances where the spider is presented as a beauty. Of course, it was traditionally a man who was playing a woman, but considering their skill levels these actors made their audience believe they were actually watching a femme fatale. In the first example I am going to show you, by Toyokuni I, I can’t get over the fact that the spider/woman has a look akin to that of a female saint or even the Madonna in European art. The hair adornments make it look almost like a celestial aura or halo. But, of course, here the contemporary Japanese reference would have been more to a greatly desired and famous courtesan, than a European saint. Still…

The actor Segawa Kikunojō V as the Spirit of the Old Spider – 1818
Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

It might not be so obvious that the woman represented is a stand-in for the Earth Spider. Take the example by Toyokuni III shown below. It dates from 1853. It is from the center panel of a triptych. It represents Sangoku no Tayu – actually the Earth Spider – holding an umbrella. She is certainly elegant and voluptuous, but what clue tells us she is ‘the spider’? Perhaps it is the umbrella which is loosely reminiscent of a spider web.

The courtesan Sangoku no Tayu who is actually the Earth Spider
Center panel from a triptych from 1853
Toyokuni III

The next image is also by Toyokuni III, from the same year, illustrating the same kabuki play production and the same character. However, here the connection between the woman and the spider is made more apparent.

Middle panel of an 1853 triptych also by Toyokuni III
Waseda University

Usugumo (薄雲) is the 19th chapter of the Tale of Genji and so much more –

Usugumo literally means ‘wispy clouds’, or, at least, that is one translation. Because of the ‘gumo’ part of that word the Tale early on was linked by a homonym to the Earth Spider. One Japanese word, kumo means spider (蜘蛛), while another one with the same pronunciation means a cloud (雲). Like pair and pear or their and there. In time, there were a series of great beauties, courtesans, who were known by the name Usugumo – the wispy clouds and not the spider. And yet… and yet… and yet… in so many early myths the spirit of the Earth Spider often took the form of a stunningly attractive woman.

The courtesan Usugumo as the spirit of the Earth Spider – 1864
Utagawa Kunisada II (1823-80)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Are you confused yet? Is it me or is it the subject? I don’t know, but I am sure I share some of the blame. I am just not bright enough to untangle this mess. Now, some more information that will only make this topic more maddening. Andrew Gerstle in Chikamatsu: Five Late Plays – Chikamatsu who lived from 1653-1725 – Gerstle wrote about Acts 4 and 5 of The Tethered Steed and the Eight Provinces of Kantō: “[These acts] shift the focus to the theme of the power of legitimate government as represented by the supernatural powers invested in particular swords received or blessed by the gods who protect the imperial center, a major theme of traditional battle literature from earliest times. The nō play Tsuchigumo (Earth Spider), the source of the action in acts 4 and 5, is a fantastic dance piece, but it also about protecting the center from threatening forces at the periphery, in this case a supernatural spider. Chikamatsu merges three elements: the Masakado-Yoshikado rebellion, the vengeful spirit of jealousy represented by Kochō (Yoshikado’s sister) who becomes the earth spider, and the traditional “earth spider” story, with its focus on the might of the “spider killing” (kumo-kirimaru, or hizamaru) sword, representing the power of the “legitimate” forces who protect the imperial center.”

At one point in the play, The Tethered Steed… Kochō speaks threateningly to a group of women:

“You don’t recognize this figure? Once before, long ago, I lived in the world, harboring grudges, passing many years
on Mount Kazuragi, waiting a chance for revenge. I am the spirit of the Earth Spider. My brother Shōgun Tarō
Masakado plotted to take over all Japan and make it the devil’s empire. As his younger sister, Ijoined in his plan but
lost my way for love, was murdered and left to rot in the earth. My spirit has taken form in the five elements. Know
the power of my rage!

Narrator: Her glare is fierce, but the four women remain firm, unafraid of the phantom.

Iwafuji: What foolish babble! Attacking the imperial realm draws the wrath of both heaven and hell. Didn’t you learn
your folly when you were destroyed by Yorimitsu? Your deeds condemn you to suffer endless death and rebirth as an
evil, poisonous spider. We’ll sever your ties to this world.

Narrator: The four attack, swords in hand, pushing their skirts aside. (First) The spider flies up. (Second) They attack
from the right. (First) She parries from the left. (Second) They attack from behind. (First) She whirls to face them.
They try all sorts of stratagems to assail the monster.

Women: You won’t get away. There’s no escape. (battle cadence) No way out!

Narrator: The four cry out together as they surround the fiend. The specter suddenly vanishes, and a fire roars up. The
flames explode into a raging inferno.

Kohata: Curse it! We’ve lost her.

Narrator: (emotional cadence) In despair, they are left helpless in the garden.

(First) Amid the charred trees and singed kimonos, a hearty laugh is heard. Kochō flutters about lightly as if walking on
mist and carried by the fragrance of plum blossoms yet heavy is the karma which weighs down the branches under her
feet. She seems neither to walk nor fly.”

[My apologies to Professor Gerstle. I didn’t exactly follow his notations to a tee. I made a judgement call so that your reading of this passage would go more smoothly. His is the better example within the context of his book, but… Sorry.]

This is number 19, Usugumo (薄雲) ‘Wisps of Clouds’,
from a series called ‘Ukiyo-e Parallels for the Cloudy Chapters of the Tale of Genji’
Genji kumo ukiyoe awase (源氏雲浮世絵合) – ca. 1845-46
(Yoshikado is the one standing there with his sister/spirit/spider looming behind him.
Yasukata is the seated one holding the sword.)

Sometimes the spider isn’t a woman because there is a woman killing the spider 

Kamigashihime killing the spiders – 1757
Tsukioka Settei (1710-87)

Princess Kamigashi “…reportedly lived during hte reign of the legendary Emperor Keikō (71-130). She is said to have gone after the Earth Spider. One of the most dramatic prints ever is her slaying the Tsuchigumo by Kuniyoshi.

Kamigashihime (神我志姫) about to slay the Tsuchigumo – ca. 1825-30
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Don’t forget the Nō play Tsuchigumo

Scene from Tshuchigumo – 1901
Tsukioka Kōgyo (月岡耕漁 – 1869-1927)
Ritsumeikan University

Noriko Reider tells us:

“According to the Noh text, Minamoto no Raikō is stricken by an unknown illness. His maid, Kochō, brings medicine
but it does not help. One night, a strange priest appears at Raikō’s bedside and begins casting silken threads across
Raikō’s bedside and begins casting silken threads across Raikō’s body. Surprised, Raikō strikes the creature with his
renowned sword and the being disappears, dripping blood behind it. It turns out that Raikō’s illness was caused by this
strange creature, whose real identity is the spirit of the spider that had been killed by the emperor’s army at Mt.
Katsuraki. Raikō’s vassal follows the trail of blood and kills the spirit of the spider.”

Noh Spider (土蜘蛛)(NHK Educational Television)

Reider goes on to point out that the maid/nurse Kochō may actually have been the spirit of the spider in an alluring female form – not an uncommon thing for spiders to turn themselves into. “This Kochō was once the stunningly beautiful woman who waited for Raikō in the haunted house. As the beauty turned out to be a gigantic female spider, Kochō in the Noh play is a spirit of the spider who also shape-shifted into the priest.”

The medicine she had been administering to Raikō was actually poison. What else would it be? But if that wasn’t sinister enough, the priest that comes to him is also that same spider’s spirit, but now in a different form. This stuff is just as good as the stuff they put on television or in the movies. It certainly captures the imagination.

The priest had recited the beginnings of a famous poem originally composed by a concubine to her absent lover, the emperor.


Waga seko ga
kubeki yoi nari,
sasagani no
kumo no furumai
kanete shirushi mo…

The full love poem by Sotōri Iratsume reads:

“This is the night,
my husband will come,
the little crab,
the spider’s action,
it manifests in advance”

Note: “the little crab” is another expression substituted for a spider.

How do you scare the bejeezus out of a group of rough, tough samurai warriors?

The answer is simple: you tell them a bunch of scary stories building to a crescendo. “[The] interest in ghostly story telling transformed from a fad to an actual obsession due to an emerging parlor game — hyakumonogatari kaidankai, which translates as “a gathering of 100 weird tales.” The way to play was simple. Late at night, a group would gather together and light 100 candles about the room, sometimes in a circle, sometimes wherever there was space to put them. The guests would tell kaidan, one after the other, and each time a story was told, they would reach over and extinguish a single candle. The room would slowly darken, and the tension would heighten.” This is quoted from Zack Davisson’s Yurei: The Ghost Story. Later he notes that “…the grizzled veterans of old campaigns would gather the young pups together to play the game as a test of courage, to see who was brave enough to withstand the gruesome tales and who would shiver when the final light was doused.”

Then Davisson cites a particularly telling example:

“In a dark cave high in the mountains, a group of samurai gathered to test each other’s courage with tales of horror.
The candles cast flickering shadows on the wall, and with each tale told in succession, the nerves of the young men
began to fail along with the fading firelight. With only one candle remaining, the last storyteller reaches out to
complete the ritual and plunge the cave into total darkness. Suddenly a great black hand reaches down from the top
of the cave, sending the samurai scattering. One warrior keeps his wits however, and a quick swipe of his sword
severs the body of a spider gently lowering itself near the final candle — a spider whose shadow was the origin of the
enormous hand.”

The proof of the popularity of the Tsuchigumo image remaining popular well into the 20th century 

Tsuchigumo – ca. 1940
Ueno Tadamasa (上野忠雅 – 1904-70)
Achenbach Foundation
(their example is mislabeled)

Not all Japanese art works of spiders were focused on the Tsuchigumo – but even there many of them were related

Illustration from the Eiyū gashi (英雄画史) – 1836
Keisai Eisen (1790-1848 – 渓斎英泉)
Staatsbibliothek Berlin

There is another copy of these two ehon prints in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Their curatorial files tell us what’s happening in this scene: “This scene depicts the 14th century warrior O_mori Hikoshichi fighting with demons. As a retainer of the great warlord Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358), Hikoshichi joined the rebellion against emperor Godaigo and ultimately cornered and killed his fiercest general, Kusunoki Masashige (1294-1336). After the battle, Hikoshichi discovers Masashige’s ghost has returned to haunt him. The malevolent spirit first appears as a beautiful woman who transforms into a witch (shown here in the lower right corner). Later, at night, it changes into a giant spider and again attacks Hikoshichi.”

I don’t know about you, but… it is always a learning process. I love the double-page book illustration by Eisen shown above. Then yesterday I was doing some research – on just about everything in the universe – when I ran across this Shuntei print shown below. It dates from 1798 and shows Kintoki, the overturned go board and the horrible specter of the large, disembodied female head. Eisen had to get his ideas from somewhere. Maybe this helped.

Katsukawa Shuntei
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Now, with a bit of embarrassment, it turns out that I did know this print from a book by James King and Yuriko Iwakiri, Japanese Warrior Prints. Oooops. I forgot. They wrote: “The enormous head hovering on the left in this print is a form of goblin called ōgao or ōkubi (literally, ‘a large face’). As staged in the Kabuki dance, Kumo no ito azusa no yumihari (The Spider Thread of the Bowstring, 1765) by Kanai Sanshō (1731-97), Sakata no Kintoki and Usui Sadamitsu were on night-watch at Raikō’s mansion. They were passing the time by playing go, when various goblins under the spell of the Earth Spider (tsuchigumo), appeared one after another and attempted to kill Raikō…. Realizing that these were merely ghastly apparitions, Kintoki and Sadamitsu dispatched them with little trouble and thus squashed the Earth Spider’s evil plans.”

Illustration to the Tale of Shiranui, Part one – 1853
Toyokuni III (aka Kunisada)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Scene from the kabuki play Shikimoyō Shiranui Monogatari (四季模様白縫譚) – 1874
Utagawa Yoshitaki (歌川芳滝 – 1841-99)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I found it! I found it! I am so excited! I found it!

For whatever reason, back in 2013 we had a bumper crop of spiders which meant we had a bumper crop of spider webs. One very moist, foggy morning the place looked like a wonderland. I went out and took a series of photos, but until today was unable to find any of them. (Today is December 13, 2017.) Then, while looking for something completely different in my emails I ran across I image I had sent to a friend. Now I can show it to you, too. Personally, I think it is lovely and credit the modern technology of the digital camera and nature for this opportunity.

Also, I think the photograph by Snowdrop at the top of this page is better.
It catches the light and sparkles. This is something my picture lacks.
Alas, alack.

Shoki ensnaring a demon in a spider web
Soga Shōhaku (曾我蕭白: 1730-81)
Kimbell Museum of Art

Object d’art with an emphasis on spiders

Late 18th century lacquer box
Spider going after a wasp
The Walters Art Museum

Netsuke with spider and fly on lotus leaf – 19th century
The Hermitage

Kagamibuta netsuke – 19th century
Victoria and Albert Museum

19th century fireman’s coat of
Raikō slaying the Earth Spider
Brooklyn Museum

Mizugumo (水蜘蛛) – or spider shoes for walking on water
ca. 1467-1703

The early cultures of Peru and Colombia liked their spiders… or, at least, they respected them!

Nose ornament – possibly the Salinar culture – Northern Peru
100 BC to 200 AD
Metropolitan Museum of Art

In Gold of the Americas Julie Jones wrote in 2002 that by the late centuries of the 1st millennium BC :

“In Peru the technology appears to have had specific meaning, for long after casting techniques were employed for other metals, gold objects were still chiefly hammered into intricate and complex shapes.

The four spiders “caught” in the delicate web of the ornament shown above illustrate the firm command of technique that existed by the end of the millennium. An elegant, lightweight, airy object, it was made with great control of medium and design, with its delicate parts simply
fused together in a balanced combination of open and opaque areas. The roundness of the spiders is echoed in the shapes of the web, and their compact bodies and four legs are clearly visible. Their tiny fangs appear, too, menacingly, in spite of the simplicity of the creatures’ forms. Spiders had long had a place in Peruvian mythology, and their association with fertility and sacrifice would have been understood by
all ancient viewers of the ornament.”

The curatorial files of the museum add: “Spider imagery occurs in Peruvian art from the middle of the first millennium B.C. onward, suggesting that spiders played a role in early Andean mythology. The spiders’ ability to catch and kill live prey associates them with sacrifice. Information from the sixteenth-century Inca peoples links spiders with rainfall and fertility.”

Gold and silver Moche earflare – 390-450
Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1998 Deborah Schorsch wrote in “Silver-and-Gold Moche Artifacts from Loma Negra, Peru”:

“Mechanical joins were also used in the manufacture of the frontals from a pair of circular earflares divided between the Metropolitan Museum.. and the National Museum of the American Indian… Each frontal represents a silver spider in the center of a gold web… The spiders are three-dimensional, each having been formed from two raised sheets of silver that were pressure-fitted… The legs are made from four round silver wires, each threaded through a pair of holes on opposite sides of the body… The wires were fitted into rectangular holes in the webs and flattened so as not to slip out, holding the spiders mechanically in place.”

Early Peruvian, pre-Columbian, Moche golden spider (with eggs?) –
Exact date unknown
Museo Oro del Perú y Armas del Mundo

But, perhaps, the most remarkable early, pre-Columbian gold is the Sipán spider beads –

In 1987 a burial tomb at Sipán, Peru was excavated and some astounding items were found. Néstor Ignacio Alva Meneses wrote: “Many of the objects featured stylized zoomorphic images modeled into ornaments and effigies. One of the most elaborate and significant burial ornaments was a pectoral of ten gold, biconvex beads. Each piece of the necklace bore the representation of a spider suspended in the center of its web with its abdomen transformed into a human head…”

Sipán bead with an anthropormorphized human head seen from the belly of a spider.
(It appears large here, but is small in reality. It’s a bead, damnit! That is one of the
things that make it so darned breathtaking.)

We know that the spider and the anthropomorphized spider were firmly planted in the native psyches ages before the tour-de-force shown above. For example, there is a steatite carved bowl, rubbed with cinnabar, at Dumbarton Oaks, which shows a human-headed spider holding the head of a human. It is from the Cupinisque society, dated 900 to 600 BCE. Another steatite piece, this time a cup, from the same date, is decorated with stylized spiders. See below.

Cupinisque culture, coastal Peru
900 to 600 BCE, steatite cup with spiders
Dumbarton Oaks

Their curatorial files note: “Spiders are often represented on stone vessels from the Cupisnique culture, and it is likely that a supernatural being with arachnid attributes played an important role in Cupisnique religious thought. Based on iconographic evidence and ethnographic analogy, spiders were probably associated with rainfall, fertility, and perhaps divination. Their web-weaving abilities offer a metaphorical counterpart for weaving, one of the most important art forms in the Andes.”

Amber gives a view into our prehistoric past

Spider in Polish amber – age unknown, but it must be ancient
acquired in the late 17th century
The Hermitage


I thought I spotted a spider in this painting, but I was wrong. There are at least seven, eight, nine, maybe ten of them

While searching for spider images, I ran across this painting by Balthasar van der Ast in the Rijksmuseum. I have a fondness for still life paintings and have always liked this artist. He structured it in such a way as to make it clear that there was a spider crawling over a peach. You can’t miss it. It is right there just below the center of the painting, in the best lit area, one meant to attract our eye. We were meant to see it. Point blank!

Still-life with fruits and flowers – ca. 1620-21
Balthasar van der Ast (1593/4-1657)
The Rijksmuseum

(Odd thing: the reason we don’t know the exact date of this painting is because it is signed and dated in the lower left as 1620 and the same thing in the lower right, except there it is dated 1621. The same can not be said for his birth date. There we only know that it occurred in one of two years – either 1593 or 94. Like it matters…)

Detail #1. Boy, could this guy paint.

I was perfectly happy leaving my inspection at the one spider he wanted us to see, but, you know me, I like to look a little more into the details. And voila! Along the right side of the painting there are quite a few more. Adults and babies. And a spider web or two to boot.

Detail #2. Wow!

As a general point, van der Ast must have liked painting images of spiders lowering themselves down one of their threads because there is another still-life by him in the National Gallery in London which offers this exact same motif. That example was painted about ten years after this one.

Consider this beauty – a little over 1/2″ tall, 1 1/4″ wide and 1″ long – and it walks!

This astounding little mechanical wonder was created by the watchmaker Tobias Reichel. According to one source, Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland – for a while, mostly at war – also had a sense of humor and enjoyed releasing this brilliant automaton to the great surprise of his visitors. I am sure they were spooked. I would be.

Mechanical spider by Tobias Reichel, ca. 1603
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

The power of myth: simple on the surface, layered beneath

Detail of an engraving of Athena attacking Arachne
Giacomo Franco, Venice – 1584
Museum für angewandte Kunst, Vienna
(The full print will be shown below soon.)

Arachne was a simple girl, of low birth, from a backwater community, motherless at an early age, but with an overwhelmingly great talent for weaving. Her skill was so great that women came from far and wide to marvel at her work. Sophisticated women. Her fame became so great that two things happened, two horribly important things: 1) Athena, no slouch herself at weaving heard of this girl’s work and 2) the girl, in time, suffered from a complete and total case of hubris. She was convinced that her abilities were the equal or superior to those of any other weaver on earth… or, even in heaven. (Note Athena was renamed Minerva by the Romans and that is how Ovid wrote about her in his Metamorphosis.)

Ovid tell us that Minerva/Athena came to earth disguised as an old woman, to take a look for herself up close to see what Arachne could do. She was impressed, but warned the girl not to presume that her work could rival that of a goddess. Arachne was infuriated and swore at the old woman, throwing in a lot of insults, to boot, and told her to mind her own business and that even a goddess could not rival her work. Minerva threw off her disguise and agreed to have a competition – just between the two of them. Minerva wove brilliantly and in her tapestry she showed scenes of gods turning presumptuous humans into other forms. Not very subtle, eh? Arachne’s work was equally brilliant, but it showed scenes of lustful gods going after anything on two legs in their unstoppable amorous pursuits. Now Minerva was really, really mad. Arachne’s tapestry was so well done and so beautiful – and insulting, but true – that the goddess tore it to shreds and “With the boxwood shuttle she beat Arachne’s face repeatedly. In grief Arachne strangled herself, stopping the passage of life with a noose. Minerva pitied her as she was hanging and raised her up with these words: “Stubborn girl, live and yet hang! And – to make you anxious for the future – may the same punishment be decreed for all your descendants.”

“With these words Minerva sprinkled her with the juice of a magic herb. As the fateful liquid touched her, Arachne’s hair dropped off, her nose and ears vanished, and her head was shrunken, her whole body was contracted. From her side thin fingers dangled for legs, and the rest became her belly. Yet still from this she lets the thread issue forth and, a spider now, practices her former weaving art.”

The Spinners, or the Fable of Arachne (ca. 1655-60)
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660)
Museo Nacional del Prado

Victor Hugo – 1871
Maison Victor Hugo

Finger painting album leaf – 1684
Gao Qipei (高其佩 – 1660-1734)
Minneapolis Museum of Art

L’araignée, elle sourit, les yeux levés (The spider, she smiles, eyes raised) – 1881
Charcoal on paper
Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
Musée d’Orsay

J. K. Huysmans (1848-1907) pays tribute in his 1884 novel À rebours to Redon and his own decadence in his reference to a series of Redon drawings, possibly including this one: “…a horrible spider with a human face lodged in the middle of its body.”

A silver gelatin print of dew on a spider web, ca. 1910
Wilson Alwyn Bentley (American – 1865-1931)
Metropolitan Museum of Art

You may not know Bentley’s name, but chances are, if you are of a certain semi-advanced and/or advanced age, you probably know his work. He is the man who perfected the technique of doing close-up photographs of snowflakes. It all started when he was 15 when his mother gave him a microscope. Did I mention they lived in Vermont? Below is just one example.

Silver gelatin print
Metropolitan Museum of Art



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