Our Lady of Perpetual Help
A Traditional Eastern Icon
with Layers of Theological Meaning
This image was so present in my childhood and youth - pre-Vatican II Italian immigrant Catholicism with a little Irish influence thrown in by the Sisters of St. Joseph who taught me in high school. Although I regularly attended Tuesday night Novena to OLPH, Miraculous Medal and the Infant Jesus of Prague at our parish Church, I was not attracted to what I thought was a rather dark and odd style of the Perpetual Help image. I knew nothing of the ancient tradition of icons in the East. Many years later, when I found this Mary ubiquitous in places Redemptorist or Redemptoristine I was rather confused. How come this madonna of my Italian-American culture was so revered by these non-Italians? Little did I know. But now you know the story.
My ignorance of the tradition of icons in the East also kept me from full appreciation of this image as a theological text, which is what all those rather odd, out of perspective icons really are.
Once again I will borrow material from information provided by the Perpetual Help Center. Have been asked to correct misinformation given yesterday. That center is no longer located in the Bronx but is operating out of the new Redemptorist Office for Mission Advancement (ROMA) in Baltimore. The link brings you to that site.
The Picture's Meaning
Take another look at the icon at the top of this article. Frightened by the vision of two angels showing Him the instruments of the Passion, the Christ Child has run to His Mother, almost losing, in His haste, one of the tiny sandals. Mary holds Him in her arms reassuringly, lovingly. But notice her eyes. They look not at Jesus, but at us, expressing her plea to avoid sin and love her son.
The small hands of Christ are pressed into Mary's, as a reminder that, just as on earth He placed himself entirely in her hands for protection, so now in heaven He has given into her hands all graces to distribute to those who ask for her assistance.
This is the principal message of the picture. A Byzantine icon, however, is replete with other symbols.
Greek letters at top left and right - Greek initials for "Mother of God" (Theotokos)
Star on Mary's veil - She is the star of the sea ...who brought the light of Christ to the darkened world ... the star that leads us to the safe port of heaven.
Greek Initial above left angel - stands for St. Michael the Archangel. He is depicted as holding the lance and the gall-sop of Christ's Passion.
Mary's Mouth - is small for silent recollection. Mary ponders everything in her heart.
Red Tunic - the color worn by virgins at the time of Christ.
Dark Blue Mantle - the color worn by mothers in Palestine. Mary is both Virgin and Mother.
Christ's Hands - turned palms down into his mother's, indicate that the Graces of Redemption are in her keeping.
Golden Crown - appears in some versions of the icon. A jewel crown was place on the original picture by order of the Holy See in 1867. It was a token of gratitude for the many favors granted by Mary under the title of "Perpetual Help." The crown was removed in a recent restoration so that the integrity of the original icon form be preserved and honored.
Greek Initial above angel on right are for St. Gabriel the Archangel. He holds the Cross and the nails of the Passion.
Mary's Eyes - are large for all our troubles. They are turned toward us always.
Greek Initials below Gabriel are for Jesus Christ.
Mary's Left Hand - supporting Christ, comforting the one who belongs to her. Her left hand is open toward us ready to support us in our needs.
Mary's Right Hand - directs us to Jesus, points to Him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Falling Sandal - perhaps the symbol of a soul clinging to Christ by one last thread. But also, Jesus has run to his mother is fear for comfort and protection with such speed that he has lost his shoe. We too are to run to Perpetual Help with such abandon.
Background - the gold is symbolic of Heaven where Jesus and Mary are now enthroned. The gold also shines through their clothing, showing the heavenly joy they bring to tired human hearts.