Our Lady of Perpetual Help
The original icon is at the Church of St. Alphonsus, Rome, and has been under the care of the Redemptorists since the mid-nineteenth century, when Pope Pius IX charged the order to promote the devotion worldwide. The image is at least four centuries older. Our Lady of Perpetual Help is among the best known images of Mary.
The picture of Perpetual Help is similar in many ways to the Byzantine Madonna known as the Hodegetria which, tradition holds, St. Luke painted from life. However, the theme of the Perpetual Help image is a portrayal of sorrow, thus it falls into the "Passion type" of Byzantine Madonnas. Mary's head is titled maternally toward her Child. Her hand loosely clasps the tiny hand of her Son. The Christ Child has a look of fright and sorrow as he gazes into the future and sees the vision of his Passion and death awaiting him. Hastily he has run to find refuge in the arms of his Mother. So swiftly has he run to her that his little sandal has come loose. The background of the picture is a simple, unadorned field of gold. This symbolizes divinity. The Greek letters identify the persons portrayed in the picture. They are the Mother of God, Jesus Christ, and the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, who hold the symbols of the Passion. The Mother of God is the central figure of this picture.
On Mary's forehead is a simple eight-pointed star of gold and a four-pointed ornamental cross which may have been added to the original picture by a later artist. Around her head is a plain golden halo, while the halo of the Child is decorated with a cross to show his dignity and office. The tunic, visible at the neck and sleeves, is red and is fringed with golden stripes. A green inner veil holds back the hair. A cloak of rich blue covers her head and drapes over her shoulders. The folds of her clothing are indicated by thin gold lines.
The child's fingers hold his Mother's right hand, although they rest loosely. The features of the Child closely resemble those of the Mother. His head is covered with curly auburn hair and is surrounded with an embellished halo, a sign of his divinity. He is clothed in a green tunic with full sleeves which is held in at the waist with a reddish sash. A yellow-brown mantle is draped over his right shoulder and covers most of his body. To the left of the picture is the Archangel Michael. The Archangel Gabriel is on the right. Both are clothed in purple tunics and their wings are green streaked with gold. The angels are carrying the instruments of the Passion in veiled hands. Inscriptions in Latin are found on some of the copies of this ancient picture.
The first documented part of the history of the image of Our Mother of Perpetual Help was written on a large piece of parchment affixed to a wooden tablet which hung, along with the picture, for many years in St. Matthew's Church in Rome. Later, the parchment was fastened to the picture itself. Written in both Latin and Italian, the document gives a history of the picture's arrival in Rome in 1499 and its enthronement in the Augustinian church of St. Matthew. Copies of this parchment are in the Vatican Library. A condensed translation of the document tells that a merchant, native to Crete, stole the picture of the Virgin which had been the instrument of many miracles on the island. He boarded a ship, and at sea, a wild storm arose. Although the sailors knew nothing of their precious cargo, their fervent prayers to the Mother of God were heard and they were saved from the storm. The merchant came to Rome and was stricken with a fatal disease. He asked a Roman friend to care for him, and he was taken into his friend's home and nursed tenderly. Before his death, the merchant begged his friend to fulfill a last request. He confessed the theft of the famous picture and asked his friend to put the picture in a church, where it could be properly venerated.
After the merchant's death, the picture was found among his belongings, but the Roman's wife fancied it and hung it in her bedroom. The Blessed Virgin, in a number of visions, told the Roman to put the picture in a more honorable place, but he ignored her requests. Finally, the Virgin appeared to the Roman's six-year-old daughter, telling her to warn her mother and her grandfather to take the picture out of the house. After further delays, she appeared to the child again and commanded her to have her mother place her picture between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran in the church dedicated to St. Matthew. At last, the mother obeyed the heavenly injunction and called the Augustinian fathers who were in charge of that church. Thus, the picture was enshrined in the church of St. Matthew in March 1499. Here the image of the Mother of Perpetual Help remained for three centuries, until the destruction of the church by French invaders in 1798. During these centuries, the church of St. Matthew was one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Rome.
In 1798, the French military governor of Rome ordered that thirty churches, including that of St. Matthew, be destroyed and the land put to better use. The Augustinians hastily removed some of the artworks and the church furnishings, taking some items to St. John Laterans and some, including the miraculous image, to St. Eusebio's. The picture remained at St. Eusebio's until 1819, when the Augustinians were transferred to the small church and monastery of Santa Maria in Posterula on the other side of the city. Here there was already a picture of Our Lady in the church, so the image of Perpetual Help was put in the monastery chapel where it remained until 1865. One of the Italian lay brothers was transferred to this monastery in 1840. He recognized the picture and remembered his devotion to the picture when it was in St. Matthew's. Brother Augustine told the story of the picture to his favorite altar boy, Michael Marchi. The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, also known as the Redemptorists, was founded by St. Alphonsus Mary Liguori in 1732 to minister to the most abandoned. The congregation grew rapidly, and in 1853 the pope commanded the vicar general of the order to establish a house in Rome to serve as their worldwide headquarters. The property they bought was on the Equiline Hill, and was shaped like a triangle. The estate lay along the base of the hill, and at the tip of the triangle were the ruins of the old St. Matthew's church.
As the Redemptorists built, they also began to research the history of their property. In 1859, their historian discovered some documents telling of a famous image of Our Lady which used to be enshrined in the church of St. Matthew. Father Michael Marchi, the former altar boy, told his Redemptorists brothers that he knew about the famous image and knew where it was. During 1862 and 1863, a Jesuit preacher named Father Francis Blosi delivered a series of sermons on some of the famous pictures of Our Lady that hung in the churches of Rome. One picture that he spoke about was the image of Perpetual Help. In his sermon he spoke of the previous fame of the picture and asked if any of his hearers knew where the picture was. He expressed the wish that the picture, if it could be located, be returned to Mary's chosen place on the Esquiline Hill so that all the faithful might come and pray before it.
When the Redemptorists heard of Father Blosi's sermon, and realized that Our Lady had designated a spot for her shrine, they recalled Father Marchi's account of the icon's hidden repose in the chapel of the Augustinian monastery. The community brought the news to the superior of the Redemptorists, Father Nicholas Mauron. Father Blosi was contacted, and he sent a copy of his sermon for the consideration of the superior. Most Reverend Father Mauron directed the men at St. Alphonsus to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In December 1865, Father Mauron obtained an audience with the Holy Father, Pope Pius IX during which he told the pope the story. After reading the statement of Father Marchi, the Holy Father, a great devotee of our Blessed Mother, took the paper and on the reverse wrote directions that the image of Perpetual Help be given into the care of the Redemptorists at the Church of St. Alphonsus, with the provision that the Redemptorist superior substitute a suitable picture to the Augustinians. The Augustianians chose a careful copy of the image, and rejoiced that the picture would receive the honor she deserved at the site which she herself had chosen almost four centuries before.
The image was brought to the Church of St. Alphonsus on January 19, 1866. Although the picture was more than four centuries old, and possibly four times that age, the colors were still bright and fresh. Only a small section of one of the sleeves had faded. The picture, painted on wood, had suffered some damage on the reverse from worms and there were a number of nail holes left in the picture. A Polish artist restored the picture, and a solemn procession to place the image on the high altar of the St. Alphonsus was held April 26, 1866. During the course of the procession, a number of miraculous events were reported. The image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was solemnly crowned on June 23, 1867.
Dear Mother of Perpetual Help, just as you protected and loved your Holy Child Jesus, accept me as your child and guard and guide me throughout life.
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Copyright © 2004 by Ann Ball
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