On the symbolism:
Our Lady of Perpetual Help is an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary written* on a hard wood plank, probably around the 12th and 13th centuries as Western art began to influence Eastern art. The face of the Virgin shows tenderness and compassion and sorrow – a much softer nuance than the older Eastern Orthodox iconography.
The child Jesus in the icon is not of the proportions of a child – instead he is like a man, though made small. This is to show the God-head dwelling in union with the human nature of Jesus. Like a child, he clings to his mother’s hand, two small hands enveloped by her one.
He looks up to the sky where the Archangel Michael and Gabriel hold the instruments of his future Passion – Michael on the left (with OPM written) holds the spear, gall-soaked sponge, and the jar of vinegar, and Gabriel (OPr) holding the cross. Their hands are covered with a veil like the humeral veil the priest will use when holding the monstrance during Benedition (which is used to signify that it is Jesus himself in the Eucharist which gives the blessing, not the priest, so here the Passion itself is presented, not the angels presenting the Passion)
Jesus’ little shoe has come undone, and forgotten, is left dangling from his foot, showing the speed with which he ran to his mother for comfort. He became like us in all things but sin.
Our Lady’s eyes are not directed towards Jesus, but to us, entreating us to avoid sin which has caused her son to suffer so much. She is clothed in the colors of royalty – dark red tunic and dark blue with a green lining. Additionally, red has long symbolized the colors of the Passion and how Mary participated fully, suffering spiritually alongside her son, and the blue is the color of the heavens with green being the color of life. In another interpretation, red was the color of a virgin during the time of Christ, and blue was the color worn by mothers in Palestine.
Mary’s hand remains open, inviting us to place our hands with Jesus’ for comfort as we journey to heaven.
The gold background signifies Heaven and the glory of the resurrection, and the 8-point star on her veil signifies she is the Star of the Sea and the Morning Star, guiding us towards Jesus. The ornate cross/x-shape star reinforces this and is potentially the signature of the original iconographer indicating from where it was written.
The red border shows this “window into heaven” as icons are often called. In some parts of the image, such as the bottom, the Blessed Virgin remains in Heaven, while in other parts, the icon subjects come out of Heaven to be with us and overlap this border such as in Mary’s crown and the wings of the Archangels.
*”written” is an icon term used instead of “painted” since true iconography is a prayer, not an art and the hand of the painter is united with the Will of God so it is written, not painted. The painting techniques used in this painting precludes me from being able to call it a true icon, though I brought in as much tradition as I could.