A dead calf preserved in formaldehyde forms the striking centrepiece of a world-class modern art exhibition, which has opened at Chester Cathedral.

Damien Hirst’s False Idol is one of the more challenging pieces on display in the Ark Exhibition – and it had to be covered by large white sheets yesterday morning while an assembly for The King’s School took place within view of it. 

The 2008 Hirst exhibit features a dead calf suspended by wires in a gold box, resting on a large plinth.

It will be one of the main attractions of a show which includes 90 works by 50 renowned artists and is free to enter.

The works come in all shapes and sizes – the smallest is a sculpture of a foetus by Antony Gormley measuring just a few centimetres, while some pieces in the cathedral grounds weigh about 12 tonnes each – and some are easier on the eye than others.

Some are fun and likely to prove popular with families, like the giant gorilla in the Nave or the large silver spacecraft-like object in the cathedral grounds.

Canon Jane Brooke, vice-dean of Chester Cathedral, explained that many of the 90 works have links to religion – with the Hirst piece a reference to the Old Testament story of the golden calf.

Canon Brooke added it was only right the exhibition was a thought-provoking one and she wants it to be visited by people of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds.

“In terms of the Christian faith, we’re challenged all the time as to what we believe and how we believe it, and it’s right we should be challenged,” she said.

“For me, that’s what the sculptures should do too.

“Sometimes, you’ll smile – like when you look at the big gorilla.

“Sometimes you’ll ask questions and sometimes you’ll be challenged. You’ll say ‘I don't know about that, what’s it doing there?’ – and that’s what we do in our Christian faith.”

The exhibition has been funded through sponsors – it has not cost the cathedral a penny – and was curated by Gloucestershire-based Gallery Pangolin.

It is the largest modern and contemporary art display to come to the North-West, with pieces arriving from across Europe.

The display is billed as “world-class sculpture for everyone”.

The idea to stage such a project in Chester was inspired by a similar exhibition at Gloucester Cathedral three years ago.

Canon Brooke said: “A few people went down to look at it and found it inspiring. That was three years ago and we’ve finally got there.

“It’s the birth of a baby which has taken three years.”

Many of the pieces have been displayed in locations which complement the surroundings of the cathedral, adding to their visual impact.

Canon Brooke added: “The two together show off the sculpture and the building. We want people to enjoy both.

“We think it’s brilliant. We think it will bring in business to Chester.

“We hope there will be people coming to stay here, we’re hoping it becomes recognised nationally and people will come from everywhere to visit it.”

The process of building the exhibition up has taken a few weeks, and visitors to the cathedral will have noticed works of art appearing piece by piece inside and outside the ancient building.

Some of the heavier ones had to be lifted in on cranes with help from specialist lifting teams. Hirst insisted on his own team installing the False Idol.

Other artists who have work on display include Lynn Chadwick, Barbara Hepworth, Sarah Lucas, David Mach, Kenneth Armitage, Elisabeth Frink, Eduardo Paolozzi and Peter Randall-Page.

The pieces are collectively valued in the tens of millions of pounds and are expected to be viewed by 200,000 people.

The Ark Exhibition is so-called as arks are vessels or places of refuge, just like the cathedral. Fourteen pieces have been placed outside, with 76 inside.

The exhibition runs until October 15. It will be open daily from 9am-6pm and is free.