Above is a replica of the Original Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Venerated in the Church of St. Alphonsus, Rome.


As one looks at the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual help, it is important to remember that it is an Icon, painted by an anonymous artist, in the style of the Virgin of the Passion that represents the Christian mystery of Redemption.

1. What Is an Icon?

The Greek word "eikon," from which comes the word "icon," means "image." Christians first used the word to describe Jesus Christ: He is the image [icon] of the invisible God [Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3]. Nevertheless, when we speak of an icon we usually mean not only a representation of Christ, but the Blessed Virgin or a Saint, that has been painted according to specific technical and theological norms.

An icon is much more than a simple representation of events or persons of the past. An icon makes present that which it remembers. It is a meeting point between the mystery of God and the reality of Man. An icon is not an altar decoration so much as it is an altar in of itself. This is why in the Oriental liturgies, the icons are venerated along with the Word of God.

An icon is the fruit of prayer. The artists that painted icons would compose the pictures in an atmosphere of penance and prayer. While they worked and prayed they would think of those who one day would pray before the icon that they were painting. icon artists were usually monks who meditated on the mysteries of God and presented in images and colors, their spiritual insights. They shared their faith and spirituality with others through art.

An icon is an object of meditation. When we come before an icon with at prayerful attitude, we can deepen our understanding of the mysterious reality that it represents and better appreciate the value of liturgical prayer. Icons were created to foster contemplation.

2. An Unknown Artist

The great majority of icon artists are hidden in anonymity. Among the few known that painted icons of the Virgin of the Passion, Andrea Rizo de Candia [1422-1499]. of the school of Crete, is remembered as producing outstanding works of art.

The icon of Our Lady of Perpetual help belongs to this school, but we cannot pinpoint the exact date of it completion. What we can say with all probability, is that the artist was a monk and lived in Crete. An ancient legend attributes the first icon of the Virgin of the Passion to St. Luke the Evangelist. In this way the artists of Marian icons established a connection between their works and the first Christian community that had personally known Christ and His Mother. This legend is more a theological resource than a historical affirmation, since the techniques used in paintings of the 1st century are quite different than those used in the painting of icons. the earliest icons were painted in the 6th century, while most of the known icons are actually dated from the 12 century and later.

3. The Virgin of the Passion

The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is painted on a plaque of wood measuring  little over 21 inches high and about 14 inches wide. Throughout history it has received two basic titles. For artistic reasons and in accord with the style of the image, it has been called: "the Virgin of the Passion." Icons of the Virgin of the Passion usually represent the Mother of God holding her Son Jesus and to the sides, the angels carrying the instruments of the Passion of Christ.

The other title that it bears comes from the devotion that surrounds it: "our Mother [or Lady] of Perpetual Help." In our icon, the Mother of God is depicted looking tenderly at her devotees and every ready to help them in whatever need.
The icon shows four holy images: The Virgin Mother of God, the Christ child, and the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. These personages are identified by the letters that appear in the icon. Only half of the Virgin's body is depicted but the impression is that she is standing. She wears a red tunic, a dark blue hooded cape [in the original-----some reproductions have darkened the cape to black as in image, version 2, next page] with a green lining, a cobalt blue head dress that covers her hair and forehead. In the center of her head on the hood, there is a star of eight golden linear rays; next to it is gold cross in the form of a star. The circular halo around her head, typical of the Cretan school, at one time had a jeweled crown, that has been removed in the original but retained in some reproductions.


  The Greek letters are thus, using approximations because most browsers do not have Greek fonts installed: MP - OY [O is really the letter theta] = Mother of God, on the two sides of the upper part of the icon; IC - XC = Jesus Christ, to the right of His head; OAM = Archangel Michael, above the Angel on the left as you look at the icon; OAT [the Greek letter tau] = Archangel Gabriel, above the Angel on the right, as you look at the icon.

The Virgin's face is slightly inclined toward the Christ Child whom she holds in her left hand. Her larger right hand [its long fingers typical of images that indicate the way], holds the hand of Jesus. With a sad tenderness, she looks not to her Son but appears to be in dialogue with whomever gazes upon her [the universal perspective]. Her almond-shaped, honey colored eyes and emphasized eyebrows impart a sense of solemn beauty.


Detail of the Christ Child: Original Image

The Child Jesus is shown in full proportion, resting in the left arm of the Virgin while His hands clutch her right hand. He is dressed in a green tunic, a red cincture and cloak,. he is wearing sandals but the one on the right foot is loose so that one can see the sole of his foot. We have no definitive knowledge of what this loose sandal represents but traditionally there are three explanations, artistic, medical, and cultural:

Artistic: In many icons, to show the sole of the foot is equivalent to depicting the human nature of the Person [person] in the picture, and this is the one generally accepted by the Church. Medical: The degree of a person's consciousness can be perceived according to the reflexes in the sole of the foot [Babinski's Reflex]. A sudden movement in the nape of the neck causes a movement in the sole of the foot. Cultural: In ancient Israel, when someone wanted to cede their rights to another, he would take off his sandal and give it to the beneficiary [Ruth 4; 7-8].

Christ has brown hair and the features associated with a child. His feet and neck position appear to express a brusque movement caused by something that He suddenly senses, perhaps His coming Passion, represented by the cross and nails in the hands of the Archangel Gabriel. The Archangel Michael presents Him with the other instruments of His Passion: the lance, the pole with a sponge, and a vessel containing vinegar.

4. The Mystery of the Redemption

The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is not a decoration so much as a message, a dissertation about the central mystery of our Catholic Faith. The different elements in the icon tell us about God-with-us, the Way of the Cross, the loving intercession of Mary and the glory of the Divine Light - the golden background.

In Mary's body the promise of salvation became a fleshed reality when the Son of god took on our human nature. When His human life ended on the Cross, she was there as His first disciple. It was in those last moments that Jesus designated her to be the Mother of the Church: "Behold your Mother [ John 19:27]."

The largest figure in the painting is Mary, but she is not the focal point. The center is rather in the joining of her hand with those of Jesus and the manner in which she points out that her Son is Jesus Christ, the son of God Who offer His life for the Redemption of all and the Salvation of repentant sinners. Mary points out and directs us to Jesus our Savior.

The Christ Child appears as a victim to be offered, much the same as in the Presentation in the Temple [Luke 2:22-40]. Mary's attitude reminds us of the Gospel words: "Mary stood at the foot of the Cross" [John 19:25], not collapsed in pain but erect, strong and valiant. All the elements of the composition accentuate the reality of suffering, as noted in our Mother Mary's face, the movements of the Child Jesus, and the instruments of the Passion. At the same time there is an emphasis on Christ's triumph, represented by the golden background and in the way the Angels carry the instruments of the Passion, less as weapons of death, than as trophies of victory, as if they were taken from calvary on Easter morning.

It is understandable why the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help draws us to pray: it is the synthesis of the mysteries of Salvation. One can understand why some many like to say the Rosary before an image of this icon.



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