Our Mother of Perpetual Help
The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, painted on wood, originated on the island of Crete, probably in the 1400’s. It is a work of Eastern art, of course, and it has characteristics of a style that had influence in that century. It is an icon of mercy and compassion in the face of suffering. The icon seems to belong to a class of icons called “Cardiotissa,” whose Greek root means “having a heart.”
Mary holds her son Jesus, who clings to her and is looking over his shoulder at one of two archangels who are holding the instruments of his passion and death. The archangels are Gabriel and Michael. (Their names appear in Greek.) Between the two of them they are holding the cross, the lance, the sponge and the nails.
The Child Jesus knows with his divine Mind that the appearance of the angels is a prophesy of the suffering he will endure for our salvation. But he is also fully human, a little boy. He is frightened and he runs to His Mother for protection. She picks him up and holds him close to her bosom.
The eyes of Mary his mother are not on Jesus. Her eyes are on us. She wears a dress of dark red. In the Byzantine world of the 15th century, that was the color of the empress, the Queen. She wears a cloak of dark blue which could, like purple, symbolize penance. Jesus holds on to Mary with both hands around her thumb. He ran to her so quickly that one of his sandals is just hanging on by a thread.
Mary’s eyes are on us, because they are eyes of mercy. Her eyes implore us to have confidence in her, for if we run to her she will bring us to her Son. After all, she is our Mother of Perpetual Help.
Where is the original?
The original icon sits above the high altar of the church that is “between St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major,” in Rome. For 300 years after arriving from Crete it was a beloved icon in the church of St. Matthew which was on that site, midway between the two basilicas. The tradition is that the daughter of the icon’s owner was told by Our Lady herself that that was precisely where she wanted her picture to be. Once it was placed there, Our Mother of Perpetual Help became known and loved throughout Rome. Miracles big and small were associated with her picture, from the thousands who came to pray at the icon.
St. Matthew’s came down in 1819, and in 1854 the Redemptorists built the church of St. Alphonsus on the site. They placed the icon above the altar.
Pope Pius IX entrusted the icon of Mary of Perpetual Help to them and said, “Wherever you Redemptorists go, make her known.”