Recently, I rediscovered an aspect, or title, of Mary that is not well-known in some Roman Catholic circles; Our Lady of Perpetual Help. I had heard about her intermittently throughout my Theological studies, when we looked at other families of Catholicism. Our Lady of Perpetual Help is a Byzantine icon that is believed to have its origin sometime during the 13th -15th century. The image is also known as “Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.” The icon is known for being miraculous; over the centuries countless healings and special graces have been attributed to it, so much so that the image has been honored and venerated by many Popes. Some traditions of the icon’s mysterious origins are traced back to St. Luke and his Hosegetria (Leader of the Way) portrait, but historians have affirmed a similarity but argue that they are not the same. However, the antiquity of the painting is well-attested.
The miraculous icon is painted on painted on walnut wood and measures about 20" in height (54 x 41.5 centimeters) and depicts the Virgin Mary, under the title “Mother of God,” holding the Child Jesus. In this aspect, the icon is similar to Our Lady of Czestochowa, an icon of Poland that was also painted with dark oils on wood. The intent of the artist was to portray the Child Jesus contemplating the vision of His future Passion. Frightened by the vision, he runs to his mother for consolation. The anguish He feels is shown by the loss of one of His sandals as he quickly flees into the arms of his Mother.
Despite a forboding vision of suffering, the icon also conveys the triumph of Christ over sin and death, symbolized by the golden background as a sign of the glory of the resurrection. The royal crowns on the heads of Jesus and Mary also symbolize their triumph as the King of Kings with his Queen Mother. In this iconography, Mary is represented as the one who guides us to the Redeemer. The Virgin Mother is also our Help who intercedes with her Son on our behalf. The star painted on Mary’s veil, centered on her forehead, highlights her role in the plan of salvation as both the Mother of God and our Mother.
The name of Our Lady of Perpetual Help derives from one of the most famous of all pictures of Mary, an icon of the fourteenth century painted on walnut wood perhaps in Crete, staying there until about 1499 AD. From there it was thought to have been stolen by an Italian merchant and brought to Rome, the Church of San Matteo, in 1812. When Napoleon marched into Rome, the Church of San Matteo was razed. For over forty years the picture lay in oblivion. Between the years of 1863 and 1865, many miraculous incidents led to its discovery in an oratory of the Augustinian Fathers at Santa Maria in Postulera.
It was venerated, famous for miracles in the Roman Church of Saint Matthew, in the charge of the Irish Augustinians, when the church was destroyed by fire. The picture was saved, however, and in 1866 it was set up in the Redemptorist Church of Saint Alphonsus, on the site of Saint Matthew’s. Due to the zeal of Pius IX, who had prayed before this image as a child, the miraculous picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was once more publicly venerated, this time in the new Church of St. Alphonsus. On April 26, 1866, the Holy Father approved of the solemn translation of the picture, and of its coronation by the Vatican Chapter, June 23, 1867. This Holy Pontiff fixed the feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help to be celebrated on the Sunday preceding the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. He approved a Mass and Special Office for the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. Because this devotion became so popular, Pius IX organized a confraternity of Our Lady of Perpetual Succor and St. Alphonsus. Since then numberless copies and reproductions of the icons have gone all over the world, some of them themselves wonder-working.
The feast day for Our Lady of Perpetual Help is June 27.