Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Perpetual Helper

Although there is no Marian feast on the General Roman Calendar during the month of June, there are a number of interesting local and congregational holy days to the Blessed Virgin. One such example is the Feast of Our Lady of Cranganor in India (June 10)—the shrine at Cranganor, which was allegedly built by one of the Magi, is said to contain an image of the Madonna and child painted by St. Luke and brought to India by St. Thomas. Another is the Feast of Our Lady of Arras in France (June 14), which honors a miraculous showering of manna from Heaven after the starving populace prayed to the Blessed Virgin in A.D. 371.

But today, let us turn to the Feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Succor (or Help) on June 27, which celebrates one of the world’s most recognizable icons.

Originating in Crete around the thirteenth century, the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help hearkens to an artistic tradition that is believed to stretch back to St. Luke the Evangelist. The Blessed Virgin is shown holding the Infant Jesus, who is terrified by His future Passion. He gazes upon Saints Michael and Gabriel, who hold the torturous instruments of the Crucifixion, and turns to His mother for solace. So frantically has He run to her that He has almost lost one of His sandals, which now dangles from His foot. Another interpretation is that in the Old Law, taking off one’s shoe meant (1) yielding one’s right to another, (2) the wish to be treated as a servant or a captive, (3) or readiness for reproach or infamy.
The suffering Mother, draped in a red dress betokening her Son’s Passion and a blue mantle symbolizing her purity, holds her Son tenderly as she stares at us solemnly. Her right hand consoles the frightened little hands of Jesus but it also points to Him, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Behind them is a gold background representing the Kingdom of Heaven.
This kind of icon is known as a Hodegetria, which means in Greek, "She who shows the Way." And because this icon is ultimately about Our Lord’s death, it is also an instance of iconography called “Virgin of the Passion.”
The rich symbolism of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is a good reminder of why Byzantine artists are not said to “paint” an icon but to “write” one, for this beautiful image of Madonna and child is clearly meant to be “read.” And what great lessons are to be learned from this reading: the mystery of Our Lord’s Passion and Our Lady’s Compassion, and the perpetual help which flows to us from our merciful God through the Mediatrix.
Renowned for its miracles, the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was originally known as the Madonna di San Matteo, for it was kept in Rome’s San Matteo in Via Merulana run by the Irish Augustinians. In 1798, however, the church was destroyed by Napoleon’s troops and the icon taken to another church. Almost sixty years later, the Redemptorists bought the property to build a church of their own, not knowing its celebrated history.
Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Boston
When Blessed Pope Pius IX, who had prayed before the image as a boy, learned of the Redemptorists’ plans, he ordered the Augustinians to give the icon to them so that Our Lady could occupy the same space as she had had before. Pius also formalized the title “Mother of Perpetual Help,” crowned the image, and instituted this feast day in her honor. Numerous copies of the icon were made, and some of them—such as the one in the Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston—proved to be as wonder-working as the original. Our Lady perpetually brings help wherever she goes.

An earlier version of this article appeared as “Written or Painted?” in the Messenger of St. Anthony 118:6, international edition (June 2016), p. 30. Many thanks to its editors for its inclusion here.

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