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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

History and Meaning of the Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

June 27th marks the Feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help



BRIEF HISTORY


The story of the picture of Our Mother of Perpetual Help (Succor) was first told on a large piece of parchment, affixed to a wooden tablet, which hung for many years in St. Matthew’s Church in Rome—the first shrine to contain the picture. Later this parchment was fastened to the picture itself. The document, written in both Latin and Italian, gives a history of the picture, noting its arrival in Rome (in 1499) and its solemn enthronement in the Augustinian Church of St. Matthew. 


The original parchment does not seem to be in existence today, but copies have been found in the Vatican Library. What follows is a condensed translation of the parchment:­


“A merchant of Crete, stole this picture of the Virgin, which had worked many miracles on that island. He boarded a ship and set out to sea. When a great storm arose, the sailors began to despair for their safety. Though they knew nothing about the picture, they prayed fervently to God and to the Virgin. Their prayers were heard, and they were saved from the storm. A year later the merchant came to Rome, bringing the picture with him. There he was stricken with a malignant disease.”

“Immediately, he called to his bedside a Roman friend and asked for help. The Roman took the merchant into his home and did all he could to help him, but the disease continued to grow worse. Finally, the dying man called on his friend and, with tears in his eyes, begged him to fulfill his one last request. When the Roman promised to do what he asked, the merchant told the entire story of how he had stolen the picture from the church where it had been famous for working so many miracles. He told the Roman where it could now be found and asked that the picture be put in some church, where it would be more appropriately worshiped by the people.” 

“After the merchant’s death the picture was found among his belongings, as he said it would be. The wife of the Roman prevailed upon him not to take the merchant’s picture out of the house. Instead, she placed it in her bedroom and kept the picture there. The Blessed Virgin told the Roman, in a vision, not to keep the stolen picture, but to put it in some more honorable place. He neglected to do so. Sometime later the Virgin returned and advised him, as before, that he should not keep the picture in his house. He paid no attention to this request. The Virgin then appeared to the Roman’s six‑year‑old daughter and told her to warn her mother and her grandfather saying, ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Succor commands you to take her out of your house.’”
“Finally [after further delays] the Virgin Mary appeared to the little girl for a second time, commanding her to tell her mother to place her picture between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran, in the church dedicated to St. Matthew, the Apostle. The mother did as she was told and sent for the Augustinian Fathers, who were in charge of that church. That very day the picture was moved to the Church of St. Matthew. In this manner the picture of the most Blessed Virgin was enshrined in the church of St. Matthew the Apostle on March 27, 1499.”


DECIPHERING THE ICON


The first thing that strikes us upon examining the picture, is its unusual style. We are surprised at the sedateness, regularity, lack of background and lack of perspective. The picture is a product of Byzantine art. This style of art attempts to teach a lesson, rather than to portray persons and objects in their natural surroundings. For this reason, in a Byzantine picture, ordinarily, no scenery appears—just an unadorned background. 


The attention of the beholder is focused upon the persons and objects alone and the moral they intend to convey. This style also produces a sense of the supernatural, as if the entire picture were something from another world. The picture draws its inspiration from the devotional trends of the Middle Ages, when the faithful began to have a special devotion to the Passion of Jesus Christ and to the Dolors of His Mother Mary—no doubt due to the attempts, between 1095 and 1291, by the Crusaders to regain the Holy Places of Palestine, and the influence of the Franciscans, whose seraphic Founder, St. Francis of Assisi, had received the sacred stigmata. In order to aid the people with their devotion to the Passion, artists, who had taken St. Luke’s painting of the Madonna as their model, began to make various changes in their pictures. They tried to portray the prophecy of David, who, speaking of the Redeemer, said of Him: “My sorrow is always before Me” (Psalm 37:18). They therefore represented Our Lord in His infancy having a vision of His Passion. 


The original picture, assigned by critics to the fourteenth century, is painted on wood; it is a little more than twenty inches in length and seventeen in width. Our Lady’s mantle is dark blue on a background of gold. The Virgin’s tunic is red, while, beneath her mantle and concealing her hair, her veil is light green. Around the neck and wrists are simple ornaments. 

The tunic of the Divine Child is green, His sash a bright red, and His mantle brown. The angels are attired in violet tunics—and not in red, as is often seen in copies that are incorrect. 

The mantle of the Archangel Michael, is green, whilst that of the Archangel, Gabriel is purple. In this style of Byzantine art, angels holding the instruments of the Passion are not uncommon. Just as a Sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace; and a visible body hides an invisible soul, so do the visible elements of the painting hide symbolic meanings.


The persons portrayed in the Perpetual Succor picture are identified by Greek letters and initials. They are: the Mother of God, Jesus Christ, the Archangel Michael, and the Archangel Gabriel. It was customary in Byzantine art to put the name of each figure in an abridged form. In the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Succor, MP are the first and last letters of the Greek word signifying “Mother” and the letters OY meaning “of God.” The letters ICXC are an abbreviation for two Greek words for Jesus Christ. Similarly, the smaller letters above the angels identify them as the Archangel Michael, on the left, and the Archangel Gabriel on the right.


The Perpetual Succor picture gives at least a shadowy summary of Mary’s lovable attractiveness. Much of this is clear to even the casual observer of the picture. Even more is revealed through further thought and study. A detailed description of the features of the Perpetual Succor Picture will be helpful, both to increase the appreciation of this masterpiece and to deepen the devotion shown towards Our Lord and His Mother of Perpetual Succor.


The background of the Perpetual Succor picture is conspicuous because it is unusual. It is a simple, unadorned field of gold. This is typical of Byzantine art and fits most appropriately the theme of this picture. In early times, gold was the symbol of divinity. When the Roman emperors set themselves up to be worshiped as gods, gold was what they chose as an outward sign of their self‑appointed divinity. 


In the Middle Ages, gold took on a symbolism that was more in keeping with the theme of the Perpetual Succor picture. Gold became a figure of Heaven and Mary came to be known as the Gate of Heaven. Gold is also a symbol of charity, which is the most precious of virtues, just as gold is the most precious of metals. And since God is said to be charity or love--Deus caritas est (1 Jo. 4:8)—then gold is a fitting symbol of both God and charity.


The entire theme of the picture of Our Mother of Perpetual Succor is a portrayal of sorrow. Mary’s expression is one of sorrow. Two angels in the upper corners of the picture carry the instruments of Christ’s Sorrowful Passion. Christ Himself manifests fright and sorrow, as He turns away in fear from the instruments of torture. In His haste to find refuge in the arms of His Mother, His sandal has come loose and it seems to be falling from His foot. 


Undoubtedly the center of interest and attention in the picture is the figure of Mary, the Mother of Perpetual Succor. She is shown in a half-figure and in a standing position. Her head is tilted with maternal affection, yet also sorrow, towards her Child, Whom she holds on her left arm. 


Competent critics affirm that, in Byzantine art, the large open eyes and small mouth of Our Lady, signify that she saw and pondered much in her heart, yet spoke little, but always wisely. Mary’s eyes are not fixed on her Child, nor on the instruments of the Passion held by the angels.  Rather, she gazes outward, as though to the future—perhaps the Passion, perhaps our sins that caused that Passion.


Yet, there is no expression of harshness or anger in this picture. With eyes and attitude of sorrow and love, she moves us to a sorrow for the consequences of our sins (the Passion and Death of Christ), and seems to invite us to place our confidence in her intercession with her Son. That sorrowful, yet gentle gaze entreats us to have recourse to her in all our miseries. In her gaze we find the answer to the prayer we often make:

“Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us.”


As St. Bernard says so eloquently:

“She is impetuous in mercy, she is resistless in mercy. The duration of her mercy is unto the end of the sinner’s life. The broadness of her mercy is unto the limits of the Earth. The height of her mercy is unto Heaven. The depth of her mercy is unto the lowest abyss of sin and sorrow. She is always merciful. She is only merciful. She is our Mother of mercy.” 

St. Bonaventure adds:

“For them from whom Mary turns away her face, there is not even a hope of salvation.” 

St. Anselm writes:

“He, who turns to thee and is regarded by thee, cannot be lost.” 

St. Antonine is of the same opinion, saying:

“As it is impossible for them from whom Mary turns away her eyes of mercy to be saved, so it is necessary that they, to whom she turns her eyes of mercy and for whom she intercedes, to be saved and glorified.” 

St. Alphonsus comments:

“Mary is all eyes to pity and succor us in our miseries.” 


The arms and hands of the Mother of Perpetual Succor also catch our attention. With her left arm she supports her Child. So closely does she hold him that the lines of His body blend into hers, so that it is impossible to separate Mother and Child in the picture. This is a symbol of the closeness that exists between Jesus and Mary. Wherever Jesus is, there we will find Mary; and conversely, wherever Mary is, there too is Jesus. If we can say Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia (“Wherever Peter is, there is the Church”), then all the more can we say, Ubi Maria, ibi Jesus.


On Mary’s veil, we notice a simple eight‑pointed star of gold (not to be confused with the four‑pointed ornamental cross to the left of the star). This was probably not on the original picture, but was something added by a later artist. Nor is this the same as the elaborate golden star seen on present copies of the picture which covers the original eight‑point star. This star symbolizes Our Lady’s role. Mary is called “the Morning Star.”  The Church calls her the “Star of the Sea.” St. Thomas Aquinas, commenting on this title, explains that “as sailors are guided by a star to the harbor, so are Christians guided to Heaven by Mary.” 


When trying to instill, into the hearts of sinners, confidence in Mary’s protection, St. Bonaventure placed before them a picture of a stormy sea, into which sinners had fallen from the Ship of divine grace, and Our Lord, pointing to Mary, “the Star of the Sea” says: “O poor lost sinner, despair not, lift up your eyes and behold this beautiful star, it will guide you into the harbor of salvation.”


This also reminds us of the vision of St. John Bosco, in which he saw the Church represented by a ship in a stormy sea, being attacked on all sides by pirate ships. The Ark of the Church was safely steered and anchored in between two pillars that emerged from the sea. One pillar was surmounted by the Eucharist, with the inscription beneath reading Salus Credentium (“Salvation of Believers”). The other pillar had upon it a statue of the Blessed Virgin, with the inscription Auxilium Christianorum (“Help of Christians”). Truly a Perpetual Help, truly the Star of the Sea, guiding ship and sailor to Heaven.


Around Mary’s head is a plain golden halo, while Christ’s halo is decorated with a cross to show his dignity and office. We too must possess a halo of sanctity, for only saints go to Heaven. We will either become saints on Earth, or saints in Purgatory. But saints we must be, there is no choice whether to be or not to be!


Our Lady's tunic, visible at the neck and at the sleeves, is red in color and fringed with golden stripes. The red of the garment that covers her, symbolizes the Holy Ghost that overshadowed her and made her conceive; it also symbolizes the blood she gave to her Son; and, lastly, it also symbolizes the suffering she will have to undergo, as the sword of sorrow pierces her heart. 


Mary was the Mother of Sorrows because, as a mother, she shared in the sufferings of her Son. St. Bernard, St. Alphonsus and others hold that from her knowledge of the Scriptures, Mary knew all that was to befall her Son. She certainly understood the full meaning of Simeon’s prophetic words: “And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35).


The inner veil, which fits tightly about the head and holds back the hair, is of a greenish hue. It is a symbol of her inner fruitfulness—which brought forth the fruit of her womb, Jesus. Covering her head, and draped over her shoulders, hangs a cloak of blue. Blue is a symbolic of water, and water in turn is a symbol of grace. The Fathers of the Church speak of us carrying grace in our souls like water in a fragile vase. Our Lady is full of grace, she is the Mediatrix of all Graces. The deeper the blue of the ocean, the deeper the water. The deep blue represents the fullness and depth of grace with which Our Lady has been entrusted. 


Shades and shadows were not employed to give depth or perspective to the picture. Instead, the folds of the garments are indicated by thin gold lines—gold being the symbol of God and charity. With gold pervading the background and the highlights of the foreground, it teaches us that charity should be behind all our actions and at the forefront of all our actions.


A picture of Our Lady would hardly be complete unless it included her Son. For Christ is at the same time the source and the measure of Mary’s power and grandeur. Jesus' gaze is the first feature which is noticed in the image of Christ. His gaze, or look, is directed neither towards the beholder of the picture, nor towards the angels, who, by carrying the instruments of Christ’s Passion, seem to frighten Him with a foreboding of His bloody and bitter sufferings. His wide‑open eyes are gazing fixedly into space. On His face are signs of attention and serious contemplation. This is to show that the picture is not intended to portray some real present event, but is rather a “dream picture” or a vision of the Passion. 


At all times Christ foresaw in clearest detail the anguish and suffering He was to undergo. With the prophet of the Old Testament, Christ could exclaim, “My sorrow is always before my eyes.” Whenever this realization seemed to overwhelm Him, He knew that He could find refuge in the loving embrace of His Mother. Yet, so quickly did He run to her on this occasion, that the sandal of His right foot became loose, and it can be seen falling to the ground.


Jesus' body language speaks of fright and apprehension. He turns away from the angels, holding the instruments of His future Passion, and gazes out of the picture, as though looking into the future—as if looking at the sins mankind would commit until the end of time and for which He was to suffer. This reminds us of the words uttered in anguish and fear in Gethsemane: “He began to grow sorrowful and be sad...Being in agony, He prayed the longer. Father, if Thou wilt, remove this chalice from Me.”  


In His seeming fear and haste to find refuge in the arms of His Mother, His sandal has come loose and it seems to be falling from His right foot. In the Book of Deuteronomy (25:9-10) it speaks of a man’s obligation to take up his deceased brother’s wife and render her fruitful, saying that in failure to do so “The woman shall come to him before the ancients, and shall take off his shoe from his foot, and spit in his face, and say: 'So shall it be done to the man that will not build up his brother’s house: and his name shall be called in Israel, the house of the unshod!'” 


In His fear, Our Lord does not want to take up His brother’s wife—His ‘brother’ being our human nature, and the ‘wife’ being all mankind who are espoused to human nature. Christ sees the burden and suffering that such a responsibility will bring, and the almost fallen sandal represents His words in Gethsemane: “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from Me!” Yet, just as the loosened shoe does not detach itself from the foot, neither does Christ detach Himself from His Father’s will, but goes on to die for love of us and in reparation for our sins.


Jesus' fingers hold His Mother’s right hand, yet they rest quite loosely there. In this lies another lesson. Though Mary is His Mother, He is her God. To Him she owes all her graces. This holding of hands is also a symbol of love and a union of wills. We hold the hands of those whom we love and, as St. Thomas Aquinas says: “the effect of love is a union of wills.” We see a similar joining of hands in Matrimony, where “they two shall be in one flesh” (Mt. 19:5). So too must be “one in mind” with Christ and His Mother.


Jesus' features bear close resemblance to those of His Mother. He, too, has a full oval face, curved eyebrows, eyes opened widely, a long-pointed nose, small mouth, and slender fingers. His head is covered with thick curly auburn hair and is surrounded by a halo containing a cross, the sign of His divinity. This shows that there must also be a resemblance between ourselves and the two subjects of the painting—Jesus and Mary. It is by imitating Mary that we will imitate Her son, of Whom she is the perfect model. This imitation is best achieved by making and then living St. Louis de Montfort’s Total Consecration to Jesus through Mary.


The Child is clothed in a green tunic, with full and flowing sleeves, held in at the waist by a reddish sash. Draped over His right shoulder and covering most of His body is a yellowish-brown mantle. Golden lines are used to show shadows and also to add beauty to the costume, just like the gold of charity adds beauty to the virtues that cloth the soul; for all the virtues should be being practiced out of charity (1 Corinthians, 1:1-13).


Green is a symbol of fruitfulness—plants and vegetation hide their fruits among their green foliage. Brown is a symbol of humility, symbolizing the earth, which in turn brings to mind the words we hear on Ash Wednesday: “Remember man that thou art dust, and to dust thou shall return.” It is from the earth that plants draw much of their fruitfulness and, similarly, there can be no true virtue without humility—for pride contaminates and destroys even the best works. 


The red is a symbol of blood, suffering and the Divinity. Firstly, it is symbolic of blood, for Our Lord will shed His Precious Blood upon the Earth, which in turn will bring forth much fruit. It is the same blood that Mary gave to her Son, the common blood that flows and animates the bodies of both Christ and His Blessed Mother. Secondly it is a symbol of suffering—as seen in the red vestments worn on the feasts of martyrs. Both Christ and His Mother are seen wearing red. 


Christ did not suffer alone. Always at His side as the companion of His sorrow is His Mother—Co-redemptrix. Mary, as well as Christ, suffered in advance the bitterness of the Passion. Shortly after Christ’s birth, the aged prophet Simeon, while holding the infant Savior in his arms, promised Mary a life filled with suffering. “Thy own soul a sword shall pierce,” he prophesied. 


Lastly, red is also symbolic of the Holy Ghost, again as shown by the color of vestments during Pentecost. It was by the power of the Holy Ghost that Christ was conceived in His Virgin Mother’s womb. It is this same Spirit that would lead Christ into the desert and would also teach and guide, not only His Mother, but also the whole Mystical Body of Christ.


Finally, we come to the symbolism manifested by the angels. The one on the left, as you look at the picture, is the Archangel Michael. The other is the Archangel Gabriel. Even an inexperienced observer is at once struck by the small stature of the angels. Their bodies seem almost too diminutive to be real. They are also out of proportion with the rest of the picture. By this the artist intended to show that the angels are not the principal characters being portrayed. Their smallness and apparent insignificance serves to enhance the grandeur and greatness of the Mother and Child. 


Both of them are clothed in purple or violet tunics. St. Gabriel’s mantle and hand veil are of the same color, while St. Michael’s are green. The wings of both are green streaked with gold. The purple of the tunics speaks to us of the need for sacrifice and penance—as Our Lady reminds us at Fatima. 


Angels played a major role in our Savior’s earthly life. An angel foretold the birth of St. John the Baptist and told Mary that God had chosen her to be Christ’s Mother. When St. Joseph wondered at Mary’s miraculous pregnancy, an angel was sent to remove his fears and doubts. The shepherds of Bethlehem, on the night of Christ’s birth, were greeted by angels and sent to adore their newborn King. When Herod threatened the life of the Savior, an angel commanded St. Joseph to flee into Egypt and an angel also told him when to return. After Christ was tempted in the desert by the fallen angel, a host of heavenly spirits ministered to Him. An angel was sent by the Father to comfort the sorrowing Christ in His agony in the garden. Angels witnessed His Resurrection from the tomb. Angels were present at Our Lord’s Ascension into Heaven and will also be there at His Second Coming. The angels are therefore present in Our Lord’s joys, in His sorrows and in His glory.


We, too, have angels appointed as guides and guardians in our own passage through life. Do we ever think of them? Do we ever pray to them? Do we ever thank them? Do we ever use their powerful help in our daily lives?


The instruments of the Passion are linked to the violet of the tunics—for suffering is a form of penance. The red veil tells us that our penance will be painful, like shedding blood. The green veil indicates to us the fruitfulness of penance and suffering. The gold streaks tell us that our penance must be done out of charity and a love of God, as St. Paul says:

“If I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3-4).


In order to show the great reverence due to the instruments of the Passion, the angels are carrying them in veiled hands. We would all be much richer if we could only better appreciate the value of the Cross. St. Michael bears the urn which contains the vinegar or gall mixed with myrrh, that was offered to Our Lord by the soldiers. In the urn are the lance and a reed topped by a sponge. St. Gabriel carries the Cross. It is of a peculiar shape, different from what is normally expected. Perhaps our own cross is not quite the shape we expected it to be! He also holds the nails. All these different instruments, of pain and torture, remind us of the different ways in which God will ask us to pay for our sins and also overcome ourselves, the world and the devil. In the Cross is salvation. The Cross is a help or a crutch on our way to Heaven.


The Most Rev. Fr. Murray, C.SS.R., points out to Religious, that the sponge, the lance, and the Cross should remind them of their vows. The sponge offered to Our Savior on a reed, when He cried out “I thirst,” should bring home to Religious, that poverty is accompanied by some privation. The lance, which transfixed the most pure Heart of Jesus, represents the necessity of mortification of the senses, in order to preserve chastity; while the Cross teaches them to humble themselves, like their Divine Master, Who became obedient unto death, even to the death of the Cross.


The event, portrayed by the picture of Our Mother of Perpetual Succor, is as familiar as the picture itself. As if to make sure that all observers will not miss the point, some pictures of Perpetual Succor carry inscriptions that tell the story of the picture. On a few such copies are found, in Latin, the words: “Behold Thy Son! Behold Thy Mother!” These words were first spoken by Christ on the Cross to His Mother and St. John. They convey the meaning that all men were given to Mary as Children of God. Mary was then given to all men as the Mother of Perpetual Succor. Other copies have longer inscriptions, giving a fuller explanation of the picture.


PRAYER TO OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL HELP


Mother of Perpetual Help, behold at thy feet a sinner, who has recourse to thee and has confidence in thee.  Mother of Mercy, have pity on me.  I hear all calling thee the refuge and the hope of sinners.  Be, then, my refuge and my hope.  For the love of Jesus Christ, thy Son, help me.  Give thy hand to a poor sinner who commends himself to thee and dedicates himself to thy lasting service.  I praise and thank God, Who, in His mercy, has given to me this confidence in thee, a sure pledge of my eternal salvation. It is true that in the past, I, miserable and wretched, have fallen into sin, because I did not have recourse to thee.  But I know that, with thy help, I shall be able to overcome myself.  I know, too, that thou wilt help me, if I commend myself to thee.  But I fear that in the occasions of sin, I may neglect to call upon thee and, thus, run the risk of being lost.  This grace, then, I seek of thee; for this I implore thee, as much as I know how and as much as I can: that, in all the attacks of Hell, I may ever have recourse to thee and say to thee:  “O Mary, help me.  O Mother of Perpetual Help, do not let me lose my God.”


3 Hail Marys.


Mother of Perpetual Help, aid me ever to call upon thy powerful name, since thy name is the help of the living and the salvation of the dying.  Mary most pure, Mary most sweet, grant that thy name, from this day forth, may be to me the very breath of life.  Dear Lady, do not delay in coming to help me, when I call upon thee, for in all the temptations that trouble me, in all the needs of my life, I will ever call upon thee, repeating:  “Mary, Mary.”  What comfort, what sweetness, what confidence, what consolation fills my soul at the sound of thy name, at the very thought of thee!  I give thanks to Our Lord, Who, for my sake, has given thee a name so sweet, so lovable and so mighty.  But I am not content only to speak thy name; I will call upon thee because I love thee.  I want that love to remind me always to call thee Mother of Perpetual Help.


3 Hail Marys.


Mother of Perpetual Help, thou art the dispenser of every grace that God grants us in our misery.  For this reason He has made thee so powerful, so rich and so kind, that thou might help us in our needs.  Thou art the advocate of the most wretched and abandoned sinners, if they but come to thee.  Come to my aid, for I commend myself to thee.  In thy hands I place my eternal salvation; to thee I entrust my soul.  Count me among thy most faithful servants.  Take me under thy protection; that is enough for me.  If thou protectest me, I shall fear nothing: not my sins, because thou shalt obtain for me their pardon and remission; not the evil spirits, because thou art mightier than all the powers of hell; not even Jesus, my Judge, because He is appeased by a single prayer of thine. I fear only that, through my own negligence, I may forget to recommend myself to thee and so lose my soul.  My dear Lady, obtain for me the forgiveness of my sins, love for Jesus, final perseverance, and the grace to have recourse to thee at all times, Mother of Perpetual Help.


3 Hail Marys.


Mother of Perpetual Help, pray for us.


(300 days; Raccolta 425)

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