The pattern on silk presents a fragment of a painting Lady Godiva created by John Collier – a well-known portraitist, neoclassical painter and writer of British descent, associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. Godiva, according to a 13th-century legend, was the wife of a Saxon Earl, Lord of Coventry. Eleventh century, in which Lady Godiva was living, was a hard period of time for the inhabitants of Coventry, who suffered from high taxes. The heroine of this legend, seeing the despair and poverty prevailing in the county, asked her husband to lower the tributes. The Earl agreed, but made one condition to his wife: Godiva had to get on her horse and ride around the city where the Lord’s castle was located. Normally this would not be a difficult request – but Coventry Earl demanded from the woman doing this completely naked, covered only in her hair. The Lord knew that his wife is a shy woman, but he did not expect that she would sacrifice herself so much and the demand request will be met. Lady Godiva obliged the inhabitants to stay at home during a specific day, and at a given time she crossed the city on her horse – nakedly. The Earl fulfilled his promise, and the whole story would end well, if not the one man. Pepping Tom was not able to control his desire and at the day of try he looked at the Lord’s wife. Through the keyhole he saw a beautiful woman who, covered only in long hair, was riding on a decorated horse across the streets of the city. The Lord commanded to blind him, as a punishment for failure to follow given orders and a violation of his wife’s dignity. Some notes state that the legend may have been distorted by a romantic vision, and the Earl, seeing the wife’s determination, told her to dress at least a minimal garment, which today could be considered as underwear, although in the eleventh century it was identified with total nudity. Another version of this legend depicts nudity as a lack of jewellery, what stands for Lady Godiva’s social status, although this is the most often denied version.
The painting presents a very interesting combination: neoclassical form and romantic vision of the legend. Neoclassicism, as an opposition to impressionist patterns, abandoning a regular, simple and harmonious form, was a return to the values and ideals characteristic of the Renaissance, as manifested by the creative use of myths and symbols. The concept and symbolism accepted by Collier in the creation of this work is, in a sense, romantic, although it is definitely not the main theme of this painting – embarrassed Godiva, shyly covering herself with long red hair, sits on a beautifully decorated and proud royal horse. Her naked, feminine, ideally proportional, even mimetic, clean and innocent body contrasts with the dignified and confident step of a well-dressed horse. The symbolism is enhanced by the shy manner in which Godiva holds the reins, and the eyes are directed to the ground so that you do not come across any eyes. Femininity, beauty and innocence are put to the test here, Godiva devotes herself to providing the inhabitants of Coventry with decent living conditions. She does not have to do this at all, her clothing (or lack of it) does not fit into the beautifully decorated saddle of a lord’s horse, which shows the wealth and superiority of the county authorities. The heroine of the legend abandons her superiority to help the residents, her attitude presents devotion, sensitivity to the difficult fate of other people – her body is stripped of signs characteristic of the higher social strata. On the countess’s body one can see an attempt to loosen up and submit to the course of events that may be misinterpreted as a resignation. The artist has applied an interesting treatment here: despite the beautifully decorated horse, Godiva is at the center of the painting, he immediately attracts attention, despite innocence and nakedness. Her goodness triumphs despite being put to the test. It clearly stands out from the rest of the environment, which is enhanced by static buildings, which are the background for events. Only after beautiful, red hair, matching the royal color of the saddle, you can get to know both the countess’s position and hers – they are an element connecting Godiva with the royal world. It is a pity that in this situation they serve to cover shame.
This oil painting, 142.2 by 183 centimeters, can be admired at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry.