PRIDE OF SOMERVILLE
As you might have noticed from my Virgin Territory photo essay, I developed a fondness for Somerville’s front yard displays featuring religious sculptures and figurines. But, as I walked around the city looking for religious statuary, I noticed that other kinds of sculptures are also common in front of Somerville homes: Lions. Once I started noticing these lions, I began seeing them everywhere, positioned by the entrances of all sorts of houses large and small, each lion or pair of lions blending in with, enhancing—or contrasting to—the aesthetics of each house in its own distinct way. Given the ubiquity of these lions, the title of this photo essay is a no-brainer: the Pride of Somerville.
I hadn’t thought much about the symbolism of guardian lions when I began photographing them, but they caught my attention because these denizens of African and Asian savannahs and woodlands seemed an odd fit with the vernacular aesthetics typical of the city’s New England architecture—clapboard or vinyl sided 2 or 3 story homes with wooden front porches, shingled gabled roofs, and so on. Why, I wondered, are there so many lions in Somerville?
My uninformed guess was that they are placed by home entrances because of their protective qualities, and that they are symbols, or totems, of guardianship because of lions’ legendary strength and courage. I was not wrong about this, but the story is more complicated: a quick bit of online research revealed that the practice of using guardian lion statues for protection is ancient, harking back to Egypt, Persia and India, and subsequently spreading to China and other parts of East Asia (according to some, accompanying the spread of Buddhism).
Chinese Imperial Guardian Lions, as I learned from the internet, are also (incorrectly) called Foo Dogs, which is a bit mystifying: how anyone could confuse guardian lions with dogs is beyond me. Maybe it’s because the Chinese style lions have shorter, more stylized curly hair and beards rather than manes, rendering them more canine in appearance. (For comparison with Somerville’s versions, I have included a few images of Chinese lions at the end of this gallery.)
Chinese Imperial Guardian lions are stylized rather than naturalistic, maybe because lions are not native to China, so had to be visualized according to second hand accounts, and sculpted using same the stylistic techniques used for human hair on, say, statues of the Buddha. Chinese-style lions, such as the one pictured on the left, are not the most common types of lions adorning Somerville front yards, but they are present, so in honor of the older style, I will begin with these.
Businesses selling Feng Shui sculptures, which include lions as well as “foo dogs”, recommend a series of elaborate rules and rituals for the placement and care of guardian lions. Technically, the correct way to place lions is in pairs: on the left, a male lion, leaning its paw on a ball that symbolizes its dominion over the world, and on the right, a female lion with a cub under its paw.
Most lions in Somerville’s pride, however, are of the more naturalistic, imperial style, although they are usually placed in pairs, as in traditional Chinese patterns.
Somerville being Somerville, the city’s lions do not always conform to the ideal model in every detail.
A number of Somerville houses, for example, have single lions.
The religious statuary in front of Somerville homes—virgins and saints— are intended to provide protection to the home, but in a serene and gentle way. The protections provided by growling lions like the ones below, on the other hand, are more assertive and intimidating.
Generally if a home has protective statues, the owners have chosen one type of guardian or the other— virgins and saints, or lions—but not both. Some Somerville homeowners, however, play it safe and seek double protection.
Maybe a dog….
The home below, with a sleeping lion guarding the entrance, could perhaps use some extra protection.
The other cool thing about Somerville’s lions are the colors that some homeowners apply to their lions, adding vibrancy to their vigilant sentries.
Painting the eyes and other features (including, my favorite above, the toenails) is intended, I suppose, to enhance the fierceness of lions lucky enough to belong to especially imaginative homeowners.
OK, the photos to the right and below are non-lion outliers, but I’m including them here because maybe the homeowners believed these fierce-looking animals could perform the same function as guardian lions:
And finally, for purposes of comparison, below are two images (borrowed from Wikipedia) of ancient Chinese guardian lions of the sort of imperial leonine statuary that have inspired Somerville’s Lion Pride.
This one, dating from the Ming Dynasty period, is from the Forbidden City.
This one is from the later Qing Dynasty.
Addendum: on January 8, 2019, as I was constructing this photo essay, the Boston Globe published a photo essay by one of its photographers David L. Ryan, entitled “Hunting for Lions around Boston” —which is well worth a look. Somerville’s lions may be less regal and imposing than those Ryan photographed on important buildings around Boston, but they lack the personal domestic touches that characterize the Pride of Somerville.