Our Lady of Perpetual Help
May 01, 2022 / Written by: Tonia Long
Feast June 27
Why is His Sandal Dangling? And other questions answered about devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
“Perpetual” is not a word we use every day. So let’s familiarize ourselves with its meaning to better understand the power of this particular title of Our Lady.
Perpetual: adjective meaning  never-ending or changing;  occurring repeatedly; so frequent as to seem endless and uninterrupted.
Can you think of anything positive in this post-modern world that fits this description? When it is apparent that everything is changing to the point that most have forgotten what the new normal is even as it is replaced almost daily with something else, Our Lady of Perpetual Help is here to renew our sanity and a sense of stability.
Early Beginnings of This Devotion
According to popular tradition, a merchant acquired the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help from the island of Crete and had it shipped to Rome towards the end of the fifteenth century. During the voyage, a terrible storm arose, threatening the lives of all on the ship. The passengers and crew prayed to our Blessed Mother, and were saved.1
Once in Rome, the merchant, dying, ordered that the image should be displayed for public veneration. His friend, who retained the image, received further instructions in a dream to his little daughter. The Blessed Mother appeared to her as she slept and expressed the desire for the image to be venerated in a Church between the Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran in Rome. The image, consequently, was housed at the Church of St. Matthew, and became known as “The Madonna of Saint Matthew.” Pilgrims flocked to the church for the next three hundred years, and great graces were bestowed upon the faithful.
After Napoleon’s troops destroyed the Church of St. Matthew in 1812, the image was transferred to the Church of St. Mary in Posterula, and remained there for nearly forty years. There, the image was neglected and forgotten.
By divine providence, the forgotten image was rediscovered. The story of this rediscovery is impressive in its simplicity. Over the course of several years, an Augustinian monk took pains to point the icon out to a young altar boy named Michael. The monk impressed on the young lad the importance and beauty of the image, even though he himself did not know of its origins. Michael never forgot the words of his mentor. When he later became a Redemptorist Father, he told his fellow priests about Our Lady of Perpetual Help. One thing led to another and in 1865 the Superior General of the Redemptorist order wrote to the Holy Father, asking permission to “adopt” the image.
Blessed Pope Pius IX sent a letter dated 11 December 1865 to Father General Mauron, C.Ss.R., ordered that the image be once again publicly venerated in Via Merulana, the new church of Saint Alphonsus. The same Pontiff directed the Augustinian friars to surrender the icon to the Redemptorist priests, on the 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. Pope Pius IX instructions to the Redemptorists were:
The Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda will call the Superior of the community of Sancta Maria in Posterula and will tell him that it is Our desire that the image of Most Holy Mary, referred to in this petition, be again placed between Saint John and Saint Mary Major; the Redemptorists shall replace it with another adequate picture. 2
Upon its official transfer, Pope Pius IX finally gave his Apostolic Blessing and titled the icon Mater de Perpetuo Succursu (Mother of Perpetual Help). When the image was being carried in a solemn procession through the streets, a young child was cured, the first of many recorded miracles attributed to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. 3
Icon Details and the Meaning of Its Symbols
Our Lady of Perpetual Help is the most widely known icon in the world.
It is a Byzantine icon that is painted on wood and measures about 20" tall. It depicts the Blessed Mother, under the title of “Mother of God,” holding the child Jesus. The image belongs to a class of icons known as kardiotissa, from the Greek word kardia, meaning “heart.” This type of icon portrays mercy, compassion, and tenderness because the Blessed Mother holds the child Jesus close to her heart.
Icons are not meant to be merely physical representations of the subject matter but instead artistic portrayals of eternal truths. In this case, the artist has the child Jesus contemplating the vision of His future passion, and in His anguish, He runs to His mother to be consoled. Notice that His left sandal is dangling from His foot because that indicates the haste with which He ran to His mother.
The central image is, of course, the Virgin Mary. The Greek letters MP and ƟY at the top of the image are abbreviations for Meter Theou, which means “Mother of God.” Mary is wearing the colors of virgins (red) and motherhood (blue), but they are also the colors of royalty. Her face is serene and dignified, yet she is sorrowful. Her eyes are directed not at her Son but at us, the viewer as if to remind us that sin is what caused her Son’s suffering. At the same time, just as she comforts her Son, she also comforts us in our times of affliction because she is our spiritual mother. We can always turn to her in times of need to receive her help. Her main goal is to lead us to her Son. Hence, her eyes are also filled with compassion and love.
The eight-pointed star on Mary’s veil reminds us that she is the dawn announcing the coming of Christ, the Star of the Sea who leads us to her Son.
Mary’s mouth is small to indicate her spirit of silence and prayer. Her eyes are large, for they see all of our troubles and needs, and are always turned toward us.
The child is Jesus, who is portrayed as a miniature adult rather than a child. This could indicate Jesus’ infinite, divine knowledge as God. The letters next to Him, IC XC, are an abbreviation for Iesous Christos, the Greek form of “Jesus Christ.” Though God in the flesh, in His humanity He still feels anguish over His impending passion, and consequently, He flees to His mother for comfort and grasps her hand.
Christ’s hands, turned palms down into His Mother’s, indicate that He has placed the graces of the Redemption in her keeping. Our Lady’s hand does not clasp those of her Son, but remains open, inviting us to put our hands in hers along with those of Jesus.
There are two angels in the image who bear the instruments of Christ’s passion. The abbreviations next to them identify who they are. Saint Michael is on the left, bearing a spear, the wine-soaked sponge, and the crown of thorns. Saint Gabriel is on the right, bearing the cross and nails. Their hands are covered with a cloth, much like the cloth (humeral veil) used by a priest during Benediction when he blesses the congregation with the Blessed Sacrament contained in a monstrance (a metallic stand that usually has a star-burst design).
The color gold is a symbol of the resurrection and of Heaven, where both Jesus and Mary now reign in glory. Hence, it is used as the background color and the color of Jesus' tunic. Also golden are the crowns or halos around Jesus and Mary, indicating their triumph as the King of Kings with His Queen Mother. So even though the icon depicts a foreboding vision of Christ’s suffering, it also conveys His victory over sin and death. 4
By her God-given nature, a mother will always try to help her children, if there is any way that she possibly can. When we truly think of the Mother of God as our mother, we turn to her for help very often. It’s enormously hopeful and deeply comforting to know that her help for us is unending. The precious icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is a physical reminder of that eternal truth.
For this reason alone, this image belongs in every Christian home. Knowing the symbolism embedded in the image will bring comfort and strength to those who take the time to turn to this unfailing Mother in their struggles. In the image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, baby Jesus is frightened and flees into her arms. Seeing God himself seek comfort from His Holy Mother reminds us to do the same. This image inspires us to run to Mary for help, just as Christ did, in all the trials we face.
Looking at this image, we can hear Our Lady saying, “Yes, the life of a Christian will be very hard. But I will stay with you. You won’t have to do it alone.” And indeed she remains by our side, offering steady support and consolation, perpetually.
- 1 https://catholicstraightanswers.com/what-is-the-story-behind-the-image-of-our-lady-of-perpetual-help/
- 2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_Perpetual_Help
- 3 https://catholicstraightanswers.com/what-is-the-story-behind-the-image-of-our-lady-of-perpetual-help/
- 4 https://olphoakland.org/our-lady-of-perpetual-help-icon