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.
On the history:
The original icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help dates back to at least 1499 when it arrived in Rome, and the original is still enshrined in the Church of St. Alphonsus De Liguori, a church owned and taken care of by the Redemptorists (The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer).
Before in Rome, the icon was enshrined (meaning displayed for veneration) in Crete already for many years, if not centuries (we don’t know how old it really is). The tradition goes that when the island was attacked by the Turks, a merchant took the painting (either with permission to keep it safe or stolen) back with him to Rome. On the journey, a storm broke out and the sailors, fearing for their lives, prayed to Mary for help, and the storm calmed.
Once in Rome, the merchant, on his deathbed, asked that the image be publicly venerated and left it in the care of a friend. That friend’s wife persuaded him to keep the painting in their home, which they did for several months. The tradition goes that Our Lady appeared to the man in a dream, warning him that if he did not turn over the image he would die a miserable death. Three times she visited him and three times he ignored her, and then he became sick and died. Mary then visited his 6 year old daughter and told her to tell her mother to give up the image. Convinced, they went to St. Matthew’s – the church between St. Mary Major (oldest church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin) and St. John Lateran (the cathedral of the pope) as Mary had asked, but a neighbor persuaded them it was just a dream. Once again a sickness took over the opposing party and the neighbor became grievously ill until she promised Mary to not oppose the move, at which time she was cured.
Finally, the image was brought to St. Matthew’s in a procession and immediately miracles began to occur – most notably a paralyzed man was cured as the procession passed his house. For the next 300 years the image was venerated in this tiny church to St. Matthew, and was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in all of Rome. The history of the icon was written on a parchment that was hung by the image (and now kept in the Vatican library)
However, as Napoleon conquered Europe, his armies leveled St. Matthew’s and the Augustinian monks who were its caretakers had to secret the image away and it was lost to the world for 64 years. Eventually even the monks forgot that it was miraculous until one devoted monk, Brother Augustine, told a young man about the history and that the original image was in the monastery. This young man, Michael Marchi, would later join the Redemptorists, and was assigned to the brand new Church of St. Alphonsus, built on the same land as St. Matthew’s.
Quite by chance, Fr. Marchi was around when a priest mentioned that this was the same land that housed a miraculous image of Mary, but that the image was lost. Fr. Marchi immediately recounted that he had seen the image in the monastery of the Augustinians – that it was the image of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. However, the Redemptorists did not know of the full history, namely that Mary herself had demanded that the image be venerated in this church, so they did not pursue the matter for several years until a Jesuit priest happened to give a sermon in another church entreating any who knew of the whereabouts of the image to remember the request of the Virgin.
So finally, in 1865 the Redemptorists obtained an audience with Pope Pius IX, who became convinced that it was God’s Will for the image to be publicly venerated once more. He wrote on the back of the parchment with the history of the icon that the Redemptorist order should notify the Augustinians that it was the will of the Church that the image be restored to it’s rightful place, and that the Redemptorists would obtain for them a replica.
All went smoothly, and five months later the preparations to obtain, restore, and prepare the place for the icon were complete and a three day long celebration followed the solemn procession of the icon into the church. Several miracles again happened on the day of the procession, and soon the church was filled with crutches and other thank-offerings for miraculous cures and by the next year, the Vatican ordered that the icon should be crowned – a tradition bestowed upon any image or statue that has obtained a multitude of cures and graces which includes either just a crown attached to the image or statue or a complete replica of the image in gold, silver, and precious jewels that is placed on top of the image.
When the Redeptorists established their mission in Boston in 1871, the devotion to the image quickly spread across the United States. They had enshrined in their humble wood church, an exact replica of the original image that had been touched to the original and blessed, and soon there were so many pilgrims that they had to start construction on a larger church. In the first 13 years the image was enshrined in America, no less than 331 well-authenticated (to quote Fr. John Byrne of the Redemptorists who kept the records) miracles were attributed to the image.
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Staging photos are not necessarily accurate representations of the size of the image, but simply give an idea of the image in a room. Please measure your actual wall before deciding.
Images subject to copyright, copyright Monica Skrzypczak. Do not reproduce without explicit written permission. To use the image in print at your parish, or any other use, feel free to email me with the project and number of copies estimated for a quote on a temporary license.