The Meaning Behind the Icon
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.
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.
Iconographic Elements of the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help
1. The Virgin
2. The Child Jesus
3. The Archangels with the instruments of the Passion
4. Greek Abbreviations
MP OY = Mater Theou: Mother of God
OAPM = O Arkanguelos Mikael: The Archangel Michael
OAPG = O Arkanguelos Gabriel: The Archangel Gabriel
ICXC = Iesus Xristos: Jesus Christ
The Face of Mary: A Portrait of the Mother of God
The type of image used corresponds to portraits of the Mother of God. It refers to the Theotokos of the Council of Nicea (325), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451). It also refers to the Virgin Mother of God of fundamental themes of Marian iconography.
The Eyes of the Mother of Perpetual Help:
The eyes of the Mother look towards us with compassion and love.
The Star on the Virgin’s Forehead
THE EIGHT-POINTED STAR
In ancient christian iconography it means the ray of light, the hand of the Father who blesses from on high or the dove that descends bathed in light.
Signify the coming incarnation of Christ as announced by a prophet. It also appears in the nativity.
In pagan iconography it is a symbol of Divine presence.
Mary is the star that guides the faithful as once guided the Magi.
The gilded background and the circular halos invite us to contemplate the great mystery of redemption - the incarnation, the “elevation” of Christ on the cross and his “ascent” into heaven on the day of the Resurrection. This is is why the archangels appear to repeat the following words: “ We bow before the Cross and glorify your Resurrection”.
The eyes of the child look resolutely and calmly towards the instrument of salvation
The sandals falls from the child’s foot, signifies the child’s fright and is also a symbol of redemption (cf Ruth 4:7)
The Great Hands of the Mother of God: Mary’s hands have a highly symbolic significance.
In her right hand she holds the hand of he who holds the universe in his hand.
Her right hand is the Hodegetria hand, the hand of she who shows the path to Christ, who is the Way the Truth and the Life. She appears to say to us, “Do whatever he tells you.” (Jn 2:5)
The Instruments of the Glorious Passion of Christ
The instruments of the passion do not appear as signs of Christ’s execution but as a memorial to his glorious Passion.