By Michael Dubruiel
“The origin of the icon that is at the center of devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help is unknown. Many have thought that St. Luke painted it, but its existence prior to the late Middle Ages cannot be confirmed. Likely it is Eastern in origin due to the Byzantine style and Greek lettering.
The icon features the child Jesus fleeing into his Mother's protective arms as the Archangels Michael and Gabriel show Him the instruments of crucifixion. The Greek letters spell out the first letters of Mary and Jesus' names.
The icon arrived in Rome in the 15th century after a merchant who had heard about a miraculous image on the island of Crete went to the island and stole it. When he arrived in Rome with the icon among his wares, he fell very ill. As he lay dying, he ordered that a friend place the icon in a church, perhaps hoping that it would alleviate his suffering. The friend took the icon to his own home, where his wife hung it in their bedroom.
The Virgin evidently was not pleased with this arrangement, and several times appeared to the man and told him that she wished for her image to be placed in a church. The man, despite the miraculous visitation, was not moved to relinquish control of the image. The Blessed Virgin next appeared to the man's daughter and asked that the icon be enshrined in a church between the two very large churches of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. The daughter communicated this to her father and he relented, and so the icon was enshrined in 1499 in St. Matthew's, the church that lies between the two larger edifices.
Pilgrims flocked to the small church for 300 years to pray before the miraculous image, until Napoleon's invading army destroyed the church in 1798. Once the soldiers had left the area, people searched the ruins looking for the image but could not locate it anywhere. It seemed that the image had been lost, and for the next 60 years there was no mention of it.
In 1855, the Order of Redemptorists came to Rome and were granted possession of the location where St. Matthew's had once stood to build a church in honor of their founder, St. Alphonsus Liguori. It happened that a young Redemptorist priest remembered that as a young boy he had been told of a miraculous image that had once been enshrined in the previous church. The image had been safely transferred to an Augustinian monastery near Rome.
When the Redemptorists heard of this, they petitioned the pope to allow the image to be returned to the spot that the Blessed Virgin had requested. The pope granted their request and further commissioned the Redemptorist order to spread devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help throughout the world. The image was transferred in a solemn procession on April 26, 1866, to the Church of St. Alphonsus.
Today, replicas of the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help grace the altars of countless churches throughout the world.”
Michael Dubruiel is a book-acquisitions editor at Our Sunday Visitor. This article was excerpted from his book, "The Church's Most Powerful Novenas," published in 2000 by Our Sunday Visitor.
The Icon Message
(from the Redemptorist website www.cssr.com)
This beloved picture may look strange to modern Western eyes. It doesn't portray Mary as a delicate maiden with downcast eyes. Her direct gaze and strong features command our attention. We are struck by the unrealistic qualities of the figures. Jesus is the size of a toddler, but his features are those of an older child. Mary and Jesus aren't set in a scene but float against a background of gold.
This picture was painted in the Byzantine style of the Eastern Church. The purpose of this style of art is not to show a beautiful scene or person but to convey a beautiful spiritual message. Because the artist is trying to communicate something more glorious than anything in this world, the picture isn't a realistic portrayal. A Byzantine painting is like a door. Seeing a beautiful door is nice, but who wants to just stand there looking at the door? We want to open the door and go beyond it. The door might be attractive or unattractive, but it is only a door, there to lead us into a new world.
That's how we must approach this picture. The artist, realizing that no one on earth would ever know what Mary or Jesus really looked like, and that their holiness could never be depicted in purely human terms, has portrayed their beauty and their message in symbols.
What do you see when you look at this picture?
First of all you see Mary, because she dominates the picture and because she looks straight at you -- not at Jesus, not at heaven, not at the angels above her head. She looks at you as if to tell you something very important. Her eyes seem serious, even sad, but they command attention.
This is an important woman, one of power and position. She is set on a gold background, a symbol of heaven in the middle ages. She is dressed in dark blue robes with a green lining and red tunic. Blue, green, and red were the colors of royalty. Only the Empress was allowed to wear those colors.
The Star and Greek lettering...
The eight-point star on her forehead was probably added by a later artist to represent the Eastern idea that Mary is the star that leads us to Jesus. To reinforce the symbolism, there is an ornamental four-point cross to the left of the star on her headdress.
The Greek inscriptions read 'MP-ΘΥ (Μήτηρ Θεού, Mother of God); OAM (Archangel Michael); OAΓ (Archangel Gabriel); and Iς-Xς ( Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Jesus Christ ), respectively.
Looking at the painting, we know that she has the power to intercede for us in heaven.
Mary's gaze is fixed on you, but her arms hold Jesus. In Byzantine icons, Mary is never shown without Jesus because Jesus is central to the faith. Jesus too is wearing the clothes of royalty. Only an Emperor could wear the green tunic, red sash, and gold brocade portrayed in the picture. The Greek initials to the right of the child and his halo decorated with a cross proclaim that he is "Jesus Christ."
The Archangels Gabriel and Michael...
Jesus isn't looking at us, or at Mary, or at the angels. Though he clings to his mother, he's looking away, at something we can't see - something that made him run so fast to his mother that one of his sandals has almost fallen off, something that makes him cling to her for protection and love.
What would frighten a little boy, even the Son of God, so much?
The figures that hover on either side of Jesus and Mary - the Greek letters above them identify them as the Archangels Gabriel and Michael - provide us with the answer. Rather than carrying harps or trumpets of praise, they bear the instruments of Christ's Passion.
On the left, St. Michael holds an urn filled with the gall that the soldiers offered to Jesus on the cross, the lance that pierced his side, and the reed with the sponge.
To the right, Gabriel carries the Cross and four nails.
Jesus has seen part of his destiny - the suffering and death he will undergo. Though he is God, he is human as well and afraid of this terrifying future. He has run to his mother, who holds him close in this moment of panic, the same way she will be close by his side through his life and death. While she can't spare him his suffering, she can love and comfort him.
So why is Mary looking so intently at us instead of her child in need? Her gaze brings us into the story, makes us part of the painting and the pain. Her gaze tells us that just as Jesus ran to his mother and found refuge, so too may we run to Mary.
Her hand does not clasp the hands of her frightened son in a protective grip, but remains open, inviting us to put our hands in hers and join with Jesus.
Mary knows there are many things in our lives that are dangerous and terrifying, and that we need someone to turn to in times of suffering and dread. She offers us the same comfort and love she gave to Jesus. She tells us to run to her as fast as Jesus did, so fast that we don't even think about what we wear or how we go, just so we get there.
What are you waiting for?