The icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is one of my favourite icons. So much so that when I picked our wedding icons I chose a set with Our Lady of Perpetual Help for the Marian icon. And that is why this icon is our topic for today!
The Our Lady of Perpetual Help icon shows the Theotokos (known as The Theotokos of the Passion in the Eastern tradition) holding the child Jesus, with both his hands in her own. Jesus is depicted looking towards Archangel Gabriel, who holds the cross and nails in the top right of the image. On the top left, Archangel Michael holds the spear, crown of thorns, and the wine soaked sponge. These depictions represent Jesus meditating on his Passion. The way Jesus holds his mother’s hand shows the distress he feels, and how Mary comforts him.
At the same time, the archangels hold the instruments of the Passion like they are presenting gifts or trophies. The gold background reminds us of the glory of the resurrection. In this way the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help also expresses Christ’s triumph over death and sin.
Jesus’ sandal falling from his foot shows the haste with which he has run to Mary in fear, gazing at the angels who hold the instruments of his Passion and death. The loose sandal also represents Christ’s divine nature, untied from the bounds of earth. The sandal that remains secure is symbolic of His human nature. While the Theotokos is holding Jesus’ hands to comfort him, she is also holding him out to us. She presents Jesus as he is, fully God but also fully man. In this way, Our Lady of Perpetual Help is also an icon expressing the truth of the incarnation.
Some of the earliest traditions claim that this icon was one of the images of Our Lady and Christ written by St. Luke. The archaeological evidence places the origin of Our Lady of Perpetual Help icon was probably written sometime in the 1200s, on a wood canvas. It measures about 21.25 inches by 16.33 inches. It was kept in a church in Greece, on the island of Crete. Near the end of the 15th century a merchant took the icon by boat to Rome. Some accounts say he stole the icon, but turned to it in prayer during a storm at sea. When the man arrived in Rome, he became ill. Before dying he asked a friend to take the icon to one of the churches in Rome.
Instead of doing this right away, the man took the icon home. There his wife saw the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and insisted that they keep the icon in their house. Here, accounts of what happened differ. What the variations hold in common is that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to members of the friend’s family (especially including his daughter). In the visions, Mary asks that her icon be brought to a church where it may be publicly venerated. In one account, she warns that the husband will die if he does not return the icon to the church. However the family was convinced, they did eventually give the icon over to the care of the Church.
On March 27th of 1499, the Our Lady of Perpetual Help icon was brought in procession to the church of St. Matthew. The site became a popular place for pilgrimage for the next three hundred years. Then war ravaged the area and the church was destroyed. The icon was then left in the care of Augustinian monks.
The site of the old St. Matthew’s church became the location of a new church – St. Alphonsus – as well home to Redemptorists. After many years, the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was remembered, and the Redemptorists appealed to St. Pius IX to have it returned to their church.
Therefore, the icon received another procession on April 26, 1866, when it was enthroned in the church of St. Alphonsus. That is where the original Our Lady of Perpetual Help icon remains to this day.