The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is of the Cretan school venerated in the church of Saint Alphonsus de Liguori at the Esquilino in Rome. The painting was donated to the Redemptorists by Pope Pius IX in 1866.
Popular tradition has it that the icon was stolen from a church on the island of Crete in the 15th century by a merchant who tries to sneak it to Rome, but during the voyage the ship was wrecked, however all the occupants were saved: this was interpreted as a miraculous gesture.
The merchant kept the image in the house and on his deathbed asked a friend to bring it back to a church: the friend, however, did not carry out the will of the dying man and kept the image in his house.
Upon the latter’s death, Mary appeared in a dream to his daughter and asked her to be taken to a church, between the basilicas of Saint Mary Major and Saint John in Laterano. After much insistence on the daughter, the mother handed it over to the church of Saint Matthew on March 27, 1499 and there it remained the object of much veneration for three hundred years.
This church was destroyed by Napoleonic troops in 1798, but the image was saved and transferred to the church of Santa Maria in Posterula, also in Rome, and placed there in some corner.
In the mid-nineteenth century the congregation of the Redemptorists bought a plot to build its mother house in Rome; in this area there were the ruins of the church of Saint Matthew, which had remained famous for its icon.
It was a young seminarian who was able to indicate to the superiors where the icon of Our Lady was located. In fact, when he was an altar boy, by Father Michele Marchi, he was informed that that image, at that moment almost abandoned, had been much revered in the past. The Redemptorists asked Pope Pius IX to be able to regain possession of the icon that was once venerated in that place, which happened in 1866.
Since then thousands of copies of the image have been reproduced on the initiative of the missionary congregation for use by believers from various parts of the world.
The icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is painted on a 54 x 41.5 cm wooden table, from the Cretan school. The style is that of the icons called the “Our Lady of the Passion”. In addition to the two main characters, Mary and the Child Jesus, the image features two archangels on the sides, Gabriel on the right and Michael on the left, holding the instruments of passion in their hands. The Child looks at the cross and with his hands clings to those of the Mother, indicating an almost fearful gesture; also evidenced is the sandal that hangs off from the foot. Mary’s hand instead indicates the Son as the main subject of the painting: this simple gesture is often present in Marian icons and gives the Virgin the nickname of Odigitria, that is, from the Greek “She who indicates the path” towards the Redeemer, or Our Lady of Itria, that is, the “one who indicates”.
According to the tradition in entrusting the Icon to the Redemptorists (1866), Pope Pius IX expressed the desire that they would make it known all over the world.
Since then, devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help has spread throughout the world and has become universal. Thousands of copies of the painting have been distributed in all countries of the world. The Perpetual Novena, started in 1927 in St. Louis (U.S.A.), contributed significantly to the spread of devotion.
Click to below to open the complete Perpetual Novena prayer)
This Novena is known by its perpetual name because it is celebrated on a fixed day (usually Wednesday) of all the weeks of the year. During the recitation of the Novena, the faithful present to Mary not only their traditional prayers – Roman Supplication, but also their letters with supplications and thanks, accompanied by the invocations of the community and a meditation on the spiritual life.
The feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is celebrated on June 27th.
The Mother of God is painted half-length in a frontal position and holds the Child with her left hand, while the right shows him and offers him help. In fact he, becoming aware of his destiny of pain, passion and death, through the vision of the instruments shown to him by the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, clings with both hands to the Mother, with a very human gesture, in which he shows us his total immersion in the our humanity, weakness and fear. The symbol of fear is represented by the sandal hanging from the left foot. It is to be noted that in the depictions the following verse is often quoted from the Greek school: “He who first made the announcement to the Virgin now indicates the symbols of the Passion; Christ dressed in mortal body, intimidated by his destiny fears, seeing these things.”
The Child is clothed in a red cloak covered with gold rays to indicate that He is the eternal (gold) Wisdom (red color). He wears the water-green tunic that alludes to the Holy Spirit, and that he would give to those who will be saved at the price of his passion which is signified by the color of the band that surrounds his chest. On the cruciferous nimbus (halo) are written the Greek initials of the name that God gave himself on the Horeb: “I am He who I am”.
Hair is never shown in Marian icons, a symbol of woman’s virtues and beauties, and is veiled to indicate total belongingness to God. The Virgin wears a green-blue veil-cap, which symbolizes divinized humanity, as well as the tunic. The color of the coat is obtained from the mixture of the brown color, which means humility and concealment, and red, which symbolizes love. The heavily covered head alludes to her total submission to the Father’s will. The golden edge that adorns her mantle signifies her royal dignity to which God raised her making her the Mother of His only Son.
The coat with an interior lining of bright red indicates that she is the seat of Wisdom, but also reminiscent of the martyrdom of her heart and of her passion. The arch formed by the folds of the mantle when drawn under the figure of the Child indicates the sky that gives itself to the earth. The three stars drawn on the head and shoulders of the Mother of God symbolize her virginity before (top), during (right shoulder) and after childbirth (left shoulder). In this case, the Child is on the star after giving birth to indicate that He is already a child. The red border of the icon represents the Blood of Christ shed for all men. We also point out that this type of representation is designated by the Russians with the name of “Our Lady of the Passion”, the theme is inspired by Simeon’s prophecy, according to which the sword of pain will pierce the heart of the Mother.
We contemplate in the icon of Holy Mary of Perpetual Help, as in a mirror, the perfect model of Heavenly Father’s merciful gaze upon His Son, conscious of the danger and evil that he would have to face and the inability to overcome alone.
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