Friday, June 27, was the feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. I prefer the title “Our Mother of Perpetual Help.” The great feast came about on account of a miraculous icon of the Blessed Mother holding her divine Child. I am sure you are all familiar with this painting. It is very powerful and the original was the source of many miraculous cures, physical and spiritual. We do well to recite the Memorare while contemplating this icon, the prayer and the image of Our Lady’s sorrowful maternal gaze complement each other beautifully.
As our Queen, she cradles the royal Child Jesus in her left arm while her right hand gently clasps the Savior’s little hands. A single sandal dangles from one of His bare feet in anticipation of the welcome He would give to the nails that would pierce them. Yet, the face of Jesus is more mature than His little frame should allow. It is the way of the icon. The icon painter follows a regimen that is laid out by a long tradition of masters. The idea is to teach divine truth in the work of art. In the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Mary is central. On account of its similarity with Saint Luke’s painting of Our Lady and Child (the Moslem Turks ripped the original to pieces when they took over Constantinople in 1453) icon scholars believe that the original painting of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was based on a copy of Saint Luke’s painting. Our Lady is looking out straight ahead in the picture. Her eyes seem to be pleading for her Son, whom she knew was to die a terrible death in atonement for sin. The Child Jesus is turned toward one of the angels, Michael, who holds forth a cross like a standard; the other angel, Gabriel, carries the spear. Some interpret the face of Our Lord as expressing fear. I think that they are right.
The central figure in eastern iconography, be it the Theotokos, the Hagia Sophia (the Son of God as Wisdom), or a saint, looms larger than the other figures in the painting, if there are any. There is in fact disproportion between the central figure, whose face is always luminous, rather than illumined, and whoever else is honored in the icon. With Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Our Lord is smaller than would be the case if the artist intended to draw a “picture.” What one immediately sees in looking at an icon is that the sanctity of the person drawn comes from within. To be sure, westerners must be educated when it comes to viewing an icon; the image is not meant to be gazed at for created beauty, but read for enlightenment of Faith. Icons reveal divine mystery more than just what appears to the physical eye.
The history of this painting, its origin, its journeys, its miracles, its survival of persecution, its popularity, and its life in Rome for the past six centuries, is wonderful. No one knows who painted it. That is because it was the work of an eastern Catholic artist and icons are never signed. It is believed to have been composed in the thirteenth century in Crete. Notice, I chose to use the word composed rather than drawn. As I said, icons are meant to be read. Sharing the scene with Our Lady, whose title Mother of God is written beside her in abbreviated Greek letters, and Jesus, are the two angels, Michael and Gabriel, who are also named in abbreviated Greek characters The painting was a treasure cherished by the faithful of the Greek island who came to venerate it where it hung above the main altar of a cathedral, perhaps in the capital city of Candia.
Near the end of the fifteenth century, a wealthy Venetian merchant managed to steal the painting and, hiding it in his possessions, he took it to Italy where he planned to sell it. However, while he was on business in Rome he became very ill. When it appeared that he would not recover, he somewhat repented for having taken the icon and, apparently, made a resolution to bestow it to a church. As he was dying he revealed to a friend where he had hid the work. Strangely, however, and no doubt providentially (for its original home in Crete was soon after overrun by the Turks), he asked his friend to give the image to any church in Rome. That is how the icon arrived at the Augustinian Church of Saint Matthew in the Eternal City. However, that did not happen right away. After the death of the “good thief” his friend showed the painting to his wife. The woman would not part with it. Her husband proved to be a wimp and he failed to fulfill the request of his dying friend out of fear of upsetting his wife. His wife’s father also got involved, encouraging his daughter to keep it, for it was truly an exquisite work of art and would be worth a lot of money. It took an apparition of Our Lady to this woman’s daughter and mother to convince her that she must let the holy icon go. Our Lady said to the little girl: “Go and tell your mother and your grandfather: Our Lady of Perpetual Help bids you to take her away from your house; otherwise, you will all die.” There you have it, Mary herself chose the title Our Lady of Perpetual Help! The devil tried again and again, even using a sceptical neighbor, to prevent the icon from leaving the merchant’s house. But he was vanquished in the end and the image was eventually enshrined in the humble Church of Saint Thomas, near the Basilica of Saint Mary Major on the Esquiline hill.
There were many miraculous cures associated with the icon and the more these favors were publicized the more pilgrims came to pray before Our Lady’s image. In fact, on the very day it was enshrined in the Church of Saint Thomas a poor paralyzed man, praying before the icon, was instantly cured. For three hundred years the painting graced the Church of Saint Thomas. With the foreign occupation of Rome in 1798, and the desecration of thirty of the city’s churches by Napoleon’s revolutionary forces, Our Lady’s icon was taken out of the church before the vandals could destroy it. It was hidden with the Augustinian friars at their monastery, but the church of Saint Matthew, along with twenty other Roman churches, was desecrated and burned to the ground.
Over time, sad to say, the painting, hiding in exile as it were, began to be taken for granted. So much taken for granted, that even the friars lost interest in venerating the miraculous image. It had lost its charm so to speak, and this was on account of the new generation of monks’ disbelief. After sixty-eight years something astounding happened to change all that . . .
Saint Alphonsus’ Redemptorists would champion the miraculous icon and help make it more popular than ever. Not just in Rome, where the original still remains, but all over the whole world. No holy image graces more homes and chapels and churches than Our lady of Perpetual Help. We have our own Mission Church here in Boston, site of pilgrimages and novenas to Our Lady of Perpetual Help shrine. Hundreds of cures have occurred there, as crutches left behind attest. Sister Marie Thérèse has written about Mission Church for our Mancipia newsletter. You can read it here online.
For the rest of the wonderful story, the accounts of miracles, the processions through the streets of Rome, the solemn enthronement by the pope in the Church of Saint Alphonsus, and the crownings, order the booklet, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, by Rev. Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R, from our online bookstore. And pass it on to friends.