Ride you naked thro’ the town, and I repeal it” said the Anglo-Saxon Earl Leofric to his stubborn wife Godiva, challenging her, but certainly not expecting the consequences. The medieval legend narrates that in the 11th century, Lady Godiva, an audacious countess, tried to persuade her husband to end the heavy taxation that starved the English village of Coventry. Leofric said he would do this only on one condition: Godiva must ride naked through the town, sure his demure wife would never do such a thing. But never underestimate a woman who believes more in helping her people, than in morality, sanctimonious shame, and prudery: Lady Godiva rode completely naked, on Market Day, through the streets, covered just with her lengthy hair, and ending the tyrannical oppression of her husband
This medieval tale fascinated artists of all centuries, including the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Collier, who depicted it in 1898. In fact, the subject became particularly popular during the Victorian Age, thanks to the poem published by Lord Tennyson which encouraged a revival of this controversial feminine figure. Victorian painters idealized Godiva as a romantic heroine, as it is evident in Collier’s portrait too. Pre-Raphaelites painted portraits with vivid colors, often inspired by literary contaminations, which depicted detailed and realistic images and parallelly dreamlike, symbolic worlds; Collier’s Godiva absorbs all the charm and mystery of this sensual aesthetics and is depicted as an angelic vision, an ideal of absolute beauty.
His Godiva marches proudly, hidden only by her auburn hair, on a horse covered with a richly embroidered, carmine, saddle. The chromatic contrast between the two subjects stands out in the neo-gothic atmosphere of the town, which seems completely empty. In fact, according to the legend, the day of the ride Coventry became a ghost-town; the residents, as a sign of gratitude, closed their windows, to show respect to the heroine, except the voyeur “Peeping Tom”, a tailor who did not resist to watch Godiva and he was then punished with blindness. Collier captures in his painting the frozen atmosphere of the town, and also its profound respect to the woman and her act. Unlike other artists which represented Godiva, he avoided painting details of her body, depicting her as a profile silhouette, which covers her face. But she is not humiliated, her bowed head shows delicacy and determination
In other cases, Godiva’s “nakedness” has been interpreted just with a ride without her jewellery or noble attributes, but this Pre-Raphaelite, romanticized, version transforms her in a powerful symbol of protest and feminine emancipation. A woman which accepts to challenge morals in order to protect the rights of her people and, observing Collier’s portrait, which also challenges the contradictions of the Victorian Age. In an Epoque of great moralism, Lady Godiva’s revival takes on a breaking role: her heroic nudity cannot be looked with the filter of sin or voluptuous temptation but as a symbol of absolute pride and morality. Her middle-age courage could continue to inspire, even after all these years.