The image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is an icon, painted on wood, and seems to have originated around the thirteenth century. Traditionally, the image is also known as “Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.” The icon (about 54 x 41.5 centimetres) depicts our Blessed Mother Mary, under the title “Mother of God,” holding the Child Jesus. The Archangels Michael and Gabriel, hovering in the upper corners, hold the instruments of the Passion– St. Michael (in the left corner) holds the spear, the wine-soaked sponge, and the crown of thorns, and St. Gabriel (in the right corner) holds the cross and the nails. The intent of the artist was to portray the Child Jesus contemplating the vision of His future Passion. The anguish He feels is shown by the loss of one of His sandals. Nevertheless, the icon also conveys the triumph of Christ over sin and death, symbolised by the golden background (a sign of the glory of the resurrection) and the manner in which the angels hold the instruments, i.e. like trophies gathered up from Calvary on Easter morning.
In a very beautiful way, the Child Jesus grasps the hand of the Blessed Mother. He seeks comfort from His mother, as He sees the instruments of His passion. The position of Mary’s hands– both holding the Child Jesus (who seems like a small adult) and presenting Him to us – convey the reality of our Lord’s incarnation, that He is true God who became also true man. In iconography, Mary here is represented as the Hodighitria, the one who guides us to the Redeemer. She also is our Help, who intercedes on our behalf with her Son. The star painted on Mary’s veil, centred on her forehead, highlights her role in the plan of salvation as both the Mother of God and our Mother
Some believe the icon to be a true copy of a painting that, according to legend, was painted by Saint Luke using the meal table of the Holy Family in Nazareth, and in Eastern Orthodox tradition was often identified with the Hodegetria icon and consider it to be a miraculous imprint of the Virgin Mary both in the Latin and Orthodox communities. Another icon, which is also believed to have been painted by Saint Luke is the Black Madonna, which has been under the custodianship of the Pauline Fathers since 1382.
The earliest written account of the image comes from a Latin and Italian plaque placed in the church of San Matteo in Via Merulana where it was first venerated by the public in 1499. The writer of the icon is unknown, but according to a parchment attached to the painting that accompanied the icon, it was stolen by a merchant sailing to Rome from the island of Crete, also sometimes referred to as Candia or Heraklion.
After stealing the icon, the ageing merchant sailed and hid the icon while travelling at sea, until a storm hit hard and the sailors prayed with the icon for help. When the merchant arrived in Rome he fell ill, and as a dying wish he asked a second merchant to place the icon in a church where it could serve for veneration. Initially, the merchant was reluctant to give the icon away. The second merchant then confided to his wife about the icon. Upon seeing the beautiful icon, the woman refused to give it to the church but instead hung it in their home.
Later on, the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to the merchant's daughter, grandmother and neighbor, who implored that the icon be turned over to a parish. The Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to the little girl that the icon ought to be placed between the basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. The wife gave the icon to the Augustinian Friars. On March 27, 1499, the icon was transferred to the church of San Matteo where it remained for 300 years. The picture was then popularly called the Madonna di San Matteo.
Pope Pius, who as a boy had prayed before the picture in San Matteo, became interested in the discovery and in a letter dated December 11, 1865 to Father General Mauron, C.Ss.R., ordered that Our Lady of Perpetual Succour should be again publicly venerated in Via Merulana, and this time at the new church of St. Alphonsus. Pope Pius IX directed the Augustinian friars to surrender the icon to the Redemptorist priests, on condition that the Redemptorists must supply the Augustinians with another picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help or a good copy of the icon in exchange as a gesture of goodwill.
To this day, the Church of St. Alphonsus displays the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and welcome pilgrims for prayer. May each of us never hesitate to invoke the prayers and intercession of Our Blessed Mother in time of need.
To know more about the meaning of the icon, visit our page About the Icon.