Friday, September 4, 2009

The Meaning of the Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

Okay, so, from googling, etc. I've come across what the 'story' behind the scene portrayed in the icon is. This particular write-up of it is from here. Anything in red is me, of course.


The Meaning of the Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

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 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 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 letters above her head proclaim her the Mother of God (in Greek). 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."

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 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, 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. (This, actually, is what many sites say frightened Christ to run to His Mother, the sight of Gabriel with the Cross and 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?


The History of the Icon

For many centuries throughout the world, this picture has been revered as an icon of hope and inspiration.

The original picture of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is a product of Byzantine art. It is known to be at least five hundred years old in its present form. Painted in tempera on hard nutwood and only 17 by 21 inches, the picture may date back another 1,000 years to the ancient madonnas of Constantinople. Some church legends even date the picture to the first century and the hand and brush of St. Luke the Evangelist.

It is only in the past 125 years that devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help has increased dramatically. In 1866, Pope Pius IX entrusted the miraculous icon to the Redemptorists and told them to "Make Her Known Throughout the World."

As they have criss-crossed the globe bringing the Good News of Salvation, Redemptorist priests and brothers have also erected churches and shrines to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. They have encouraged people to gather each week to pray the novena prayers and then to pray daily in their homes to Mary, Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

Countless miracles, healings, and conversions are attributed to Mary by those who pray to her as Our Mother of Perpetual Help. There's even a bit of the miraculous in the way the Redemptorists received the picture in the first place.

Historical records indicate that around the year 1490, the picture was located in St. Matthew's Church in Rome. Although it was a relatively small church located on the Via Merulana between the great Roman basilicas of St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major, people came from miles around to pray before the picture because of the many miracles attributed to this sacred icon.

For three hundred years the picture hung over the main altar in the church of St. Matthew the Apostle and the miracles continued to occur. In 1798, the picture was taken into hiding by the monks who fled the city of Rome to avoid being captured by Napoleon's invading armies. The picture resurfaced some years later in an Augustinian monastery chapel.

Meanwhile the Redemptorists had built the new church of San Alfonso near the site of St. Matthew's which had been destroyed by Napoleon's invasion force. In time the Redemptorists learned about the miraculous picture of Our Mother of Perpetual Help that had been enshrined on that site for several centuries. They requested that the picture be placed there once again.

The Holy Father Pope Pius IX agreed and on April 26, 1866, the original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help was placed above the high altar in the Church of San Alfonso. To this day, the miraculous picture is there for all to see.

Millions of copies of the picture can be seen around the world in churches and homes. Each week hundreds of thousands of people gather to pray the novena prayers to Our Mother of Perpetual Help while in their homes each day millions of people invoke the assistance of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.


I read on a personal blog, which I'm not going to quote, because I don't know that his opinion is widespread or anything, that the sandal hanging on by one thread is us, clinging to Christ through Grace.


  1. Interesting!

    I'd never heard of icons before...I was actually confused when you mentioned it in the last entry. (I was thinking " Livejournal icons?") I find it really fascinating that there is so much symbolism in them, and I would like to know more about how they're used. I'll have to look into that. Yay, new projects!

    So thanks for introducing them to me. :)

  2. It is interesting, isn't it? :)

    Religious icons are where we got the idea for lj, etc. icons. Kind of cool.

    I'm going to look for some sort of reference material (books, of course), on the symbolism in icons. When/if I find some, I'll post 'em here. For sharing. :)

  3. I didn't realize all the symbolism either - amazing stuff! Thanks for posting the picture and explanation. :)

  4. I've found a book that seems to be a sort of 'beginner's guide to iconography' called Sacred Doorways. In my search for this I became *very* interested in understanding them better.


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