THE ICON OF OUR MOTHER OF PERPETUAL HELP
Portraying the beauty and mystery of Mary and Jesus
The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help belongs to a family of icons called Hodegetria, which means “The Guide” or “Leader of the Way”. The painting is done in the Byzantine style of the Eastern Church. The purpose of this style is to convey a spiritual message. A Byzantine painting is like a door; we want to open the door and go beyond it. The artist portrayed the beauty and mystery of Mary and Jesus and their message in symbols.
Entrusting the Icon to the Redemptorists
The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help dates back to at least the fifteenth century, but no one knows exactly when it was painted or who the artist was. Though the exact origin of the icon is not known, we do know that in 1866, Pope Pius1X entrusted the image to the Redemptorists, not as a gift but as a mission. He told them, “Make Our Mother of Perpetual Help known throughout the world”.
Sharing Stories of her powerful intetercesssion
The Redemptorists embraced this directive by distributing reproductions of her image and sharing stories of her powerful intercession in missions and homilies. Thousands of shrines and altars have been dedicated to her, and devotions in her honour are observed in churches everywhere. Novenas in honour of Our Mother of Perpetual Help have drawn thousands. The Redemptorist’s dedication to this mission means that Perpetual Help devotion has flourished throughout the world.
Interpreting the Icon
In the icon, the direct gaze and noble features of Mary command our attention. Jesus is the size of a toddler, yet his facial features are those of an older child. Mary and Jesus float against a background of gold, which symbolises the divine light emanating from within.
When we look at the image, we see Mary first because she is central in the compositions; her eyes engage us and invite us to come closer. The Blessed Mother of Jesus is clothed in robes of dark blue with a green lining and a red tunic. Blue, green, and red were considered the colours of royalty.
The eight-pointed star on her headdress was probably added by a later artist to represent the Eastern idea that Mary is the star that leads us to Jesus. Reinforcing the symbolism is an ornamental four-pointed cross to the left of the star. The Greek letters above Mary’s head proclaim her the Mother of God.
Mary’s arms securely hold Jesus. In Byzantine icons, Mary is never shown without Jesus because he is central to the Faith. Jesus too, wears the colours of royalty; a green tunic, a red sash, and gold brocade. The Greek initials to the right of the child and his halo decorated with a cross proclaim that he is Jesus Christ.
The child is looking away at something that has frightened him, causing him to run to his mother so quickly that one of his sandals has almost fallen off! Jesus clings to Mary for protection and love, and her arms enfold him as she holds him close to her heart.
What has frightened the Son of God? The answer is provided by the archangels Michael and Gabriel, who hover on either side of Jesus and Mary and are identified by the Greek letters placed directly above them. They bear the instruments of Christ’s passion. On the left, Michael holds an urn filled with gall, the lance, and the reed with the sponge. To the right, Gabriel carries the cross and four nails.
Jesus has forseen part of his destiny- the suffering and death he will undergo. Though he is God, he is human as well and is afraid of his future. He has run to his mother, who holds him close in this moment of panic, the same way she will stay by his side through his life and death. While she can’t spare his suffering, she can love and comfort him.
The experience of refuge, comfort, love and help
The intensity of Mary’s gaze brings us into the story of the icon and makes us part of the painting. We too may run to Mary, in whom we will find refuge, comfort, and love. Her hand remains open, inviting us to put our hand in hers.