Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Lady Godiva
  • Creator: Collier, John, painter
  • Description:

    Lady Godiva is pictured naked astride a white steed. Lady Godiva looks down at her slender, youthful form, captured in a moment of self-examination. The Lady’s expression conveys neither shame nor guardedness; rather, she appears unaware of any potential onlookers. Lady Godiva’s relaxed body offers a sense of vulnerability. With only her breasts obscured by her arms and hair, the rest of the Lady’s pale body is a stark contrast against the painting’s darker backdrop. The steed that Lady Godiva rides possesses a vigorous energy, contrasting with Godiva’s meditative, relaxed posture.

    Collier’s representation of Lady Godiva stems from legendary stories of her virtuous ride through a local town. In the tale, Lady Godiva seeks to free her town from her husband’s oppressive taxation. She pleads with her husband to end the tax, but he is obdurate in his refusal. When Lady Godiva persists in the matter, her husband eventually tells her, “Mount your horse naked...and ride through the town’s marketplace from one end to the other when all the people are gathered, and when you return you will get what you demand.” While he assumes this will be the end of it, Godiva boldly mounts her horse and rides through the town. True to his word, her husband remits the tax after she returns from her ride. In some variations of the tale, Lady Godiva is miraculously unseen by any of the townsfolk due to divine intervention. In other variations, the townsfolk shield their eyes and stay inside in anticipation of the Lady’s ride.

    The Lady Godiva of the legendary tale is actually based upon a real woman, the Anglo-Saxon noblewoman Godgifu of Mercia. She was married to Leofric, Earl of Mercia. In addition to the wealth and power she acquired through her marriage to Leofric, Godgifu also held large swathes of property through her natal family, which was permitted by Anglo-Saxon law. Early accounts of Godgifu commended her for being a pious and devout wife, but made no mention of any event resembling the incredible tales that cropped up over a century after her death. In the tales, Godgifu’s Anglo-Saxon name is latinized to Godiva, which some suggest was an effort to undergird the tale with more glamorous roots. Additionally, the word ‘Lady’ was not affixed to her name until long after her death, as the title of "Lady" was only given to the queen in Godgifu’s time.

    Interestingly enough, the term “peeping tom” is said to originate from variations of the tale of Lady Godiva. In some narrations of the Lady’s ride, she is watched by a tailor, who peers at her through his window while the rest of the town shields their eyes as instructed. Peeping Tom’s voyeuristic transgression is punished through divine intervention: according to legend, God or the townsfolk strike him blind for his distasteful indiscretion. Collier’s work places the viewer in the position of the Peeping Tom, creating an intriguing relationship between the viewer and the work of art.

    Collier (1850-1934) was a prolific painter known for his portraits of prominent figures in society. He also developed a genre known as the "problem picture" in which modern day personal dramas were illustrated in ways that were open to interpretation. This was not his approach in the Godiva painting where the young girl is very demure and bound by duty. Correspondence in the Coventry art museum files suggest that the model for Godiva was a sixteen-year-old named Mable Violet Hall who later became an actress. A nude teenage model raises a variety of ethical issues today, but English law had just thirteen years earlier raised the age of female consent from thirteen to sixteen.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Folklore Godiva, Lady, Wife of Earl Leofric of Mercia Noble Women Nude in Art
  • Geographic Area: British Isles ;
  • Century: 19
  • Date: 1898
  • Related Work: P. Pargeter, "Lady Godiva" for the Minton Pottery, 1867 (Coventry, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum).
    Leighton, Edmund Blair, "Lady Godiva," 1892 (Leeds, Leeds Art Gallery).
    "Lady Godiva of Coventry," movie poster, 1955.
  • Current Location: Coventry, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum
  • Original Location: England
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Canvas; Oil paints;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 142/183/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Donoghue, Daniel. Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend. Blackwell, 2003;
    Fletcher, Pamela M. Narrating Modernity: The British Problem Picture, 1895-1914. Ashgate, 2003;
    French, Katherine L. "The Legend of Lady Godiva and the Image of the Female Body." Journal of Medieval History 18, 1 (1992): 3-19;
    Nichols, Kate. "Object in Focus: How Should We Look at Victorian Nudes? John Collier's Godiva (1898)." Midlands Art Papers 2 (2018/19). Available online: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/lcahm/departments/historyofart/research/projects/map/issue2/map2box2-johncollier-godiva.aspx;
    Springall, Jill. "Collier, John (1850-1934). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Published Sept. 23, 2004 and updated May 25, 2006;
    Stock, Lorraine. "Godiva, Lady (d. 1067)." Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs. Edited by Carl Lindahl, John McNamara and John Lindow. Oxford University Press, 2002. Pages 181-182.