Strength with John Collier
John Collier has illustrated for us the tale of Lady Godiva, the brave and beautiful Countess of Mercia. Her husband, the Lord of Coventry was oppressively taxing the townspeople, so the Lady went to him and pleaded with him to stop the taxation. He said he would only do so if she rode through the streets of town naked. Lady Godiva decided to assert herself in opposition to her husband and took the nude ride, but asked the townspeople to remain indoors and shut their windows and doors out of respect for her. The painting is a masterful, pre-Raphaelite image of a woman bravely resisting male power for the common good.
The glow and beauty of Lady Godiva’s figure consumes the center of this image and completely captures the eye’s attention. One is struck by the modesty of her nakedness. She holds her hair to her chest to cover herself and preserve her chastity. The curvature of her form parallels with the shape of the white horse, their legs are in the same position, though the horse holds its head up gallantly while she looks down to hide her beauty from the viewer. By asking the townspeople to avert their gazes, she resists the “to be looked-at-ness” of her nudity, while opposing the male gaze of her husband and his attempt to shame and humiliate her.
Lady Godiva’s nudity is not erotic, unlike most instances in numerous art forms where the naked female body is sexualized. In Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem about Lady Godiva he describes her as “clothed on with chastity.” Collier’s painting directs our attention to her modesty, beauty and bravery, not her sexuality. Lady Godiva serves as a reminder that a woman’s beauty does not deter from her strength.