The Art Institute's lions are Chicago's biggest boosters

Jose M. Osorio, Chicago Tribune

Jose M. Osorio, Chicago Tribune

When Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued the order to wear a face mask in public if you can’t social distance, the lions knew they must comply.

Good citizens since their unveiling in 1894, they wanted to show our city that fierce lions will proudly protect the vulnerable during a global pandemic. If a lion can wear a mask, then so can you. Man up.

During their nocturnal hunt, they roamed north up Michigan Avenue to the DuSable Bridge. With sharp claws, they ripped two Chicago flags down without a security camera in sight and donned masks worthy of any fashionista. Fine work you two.

The Art Institute of Chicago was built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Chicago sculptor, Edward Kemeys, cast these gentlemen in bronze and each weighs over two tons. They have been guarding the entrance to the museum ever since.

Not identical twins, Kemeys even had an unofficial name for them. The lion on the north is “on the prowl,” while the lion on the south end is “standing in an attitude of defiance.”

Long before the Picasso, Sears Tower or the Bean, these grand creatures always said “Chicago” to me.  When I see them, I feel the magnificence and history of the art museum and the entire city all rolled into those two lions.

I’ve been going the the Art Institute since I was a teenager and have been a member for years. What’s nice about being a member is when you are in the neighborhood, you can pop in to say hello to The Girl with the Green Face by Alexej von Jawlensky (one of my favorites) and be on your merry way.

Or if you have more time, add a visit to see Van Gogh’s Bedroom and a stroll through the gift shop. No need to cram it all in during an afternoon which is impossible.

Rabid sports fans with a hearty sense of humor, the lions get into the spirit of our Chicago teams during playoff seasons if we are lucky enough to make it.

Back in 1984, when the Cubs were in the NLCS with the Padres, Carol Terry, a librarian for the Ryerson Library at the Art Institute, sewed baseball caps for the lions out of nylon, foam, cardboard and felt. Sadly, the hats were taken down after only four days. We know how that series ended.

When the Bears won the Super Bowl in 1986 and played in the Super Bowl in 2007, the lions found a millinery shop on Oak Street to fashion Bears helmets to support the Monsters of the Midway. They used the same designer that Jim McMahon used to create his infamous headbands.

Chicago Tribune photo

Chicago Tribune photo

Paul Konerko hit a home run out of the park that was caught in the glove of the “north lion” during the White Sox World Series Championship in 2005.  Hey, nice catch.


With the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, Bobby Hull donated two of his old helmets for the fellas to wear to keep their manes tidy during all the victory parades. I believe there is still some confetti stuck in the “north lion’s” tail.

Phil Velaquez, Chicago Tribune

Phil Velaquez, Chicago Tribune

And of course, the Cubs World Series Championship of 2016 brought some Cubby Blue to the headgear of these felines. Kyle Schwarber welded these batting helmets in his basement while recovering from his ACL tear. Out since April 7th, miraculously he was cleared to start in the Series only twenty-four hours after the doctors gave the team a thumbs up.


Best of all, the annual “Wreathing of the Lions” during the Christmas season is a well-loved tradition that attracts locals and tourists alike. Nothing says “the holidays” more than these giant beasts sporting festive fir and velvet neckties.


Ah, so many happy memories of the lions celebrating with us during Championships and like clockwork, every December.

Now COVID-19 has us homebound with no sports, no museums, no lakefront, no concerts, no theater, no street festivals, no restaurants to dine in, trains empty and shops boarded up.

The city is eerily quiet.

But the lions continue to stand guard like they have for 126 years.

Those eyes have witnessed our history, both good and bad.

They have endured extreme heat waves and polar vortexes.

Protest marches and gun violence. Soaring skyscrapers and city parks.

Crimes and compassion. Revitalization and deadly fires.

Vibrance and dirty politics. Parades and pandemics.


The lions will be standing there when this is all behind us.

Somehow, that reassures me that Chicago will survive, just like she always has.

When the Art Institute reopens for visitors, I plan to acknowledge these stately giants with a nod of respect, then venture inside to check in on the Joseph Cornell boxes in the modern wing and wander the galleries that have soothed and inspired me for years.

My face mask will, most likely, be wet from my tears.


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Filed under: Lifestyle, Observations

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