OLPH Icon in Detail
Painted in tempera on hard nut wood, 21 inches by 17, the original picture of Our lady of Perpetual Help is one of many copies of the famed Hodeguitria of St. Luke. It is however, The One Copy singled out, by Our Lady Herself, for special heavenly favors. You may see it today enshrined above the high altar in the Redemptorist Church of San Alfonso, at Rome.
Meaning of the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Look at the picture. Frightened by the vision of two angels showing Him the instruments of the Passion, the Christ Child has run to His Mother, almost losing, in his haste, one of the tiny sandals. Mary holds Him in Her arms reassuringly, lovingly. But notice Her eyes. They look not at Jesus, but as us. Is this not a touch of genius? How better to express Our Lady’s plea to us to avoid sin and love Her Son?
Christ’s little Hands, too, are pressed into Mary’s as a reminder to us that, just as on earth, He placed Himself entirely in Her hands for protection, so now in Heaven He has given into Her hands all graces, to distribute to those who ask Her.
This is the principal message of the picture. A Byzantine icon, however, it is replete with other symbols.
- Golden Crown of Our Lady
- Star on our Lady’s veil
- Greek initials (five locations)
- Mary’s Eyes
- Mary’s Mouth
- Mary’s Left Hand
- Red Tunic
- Christ’s Hands
- Falling Sandal
Mary’s Mantle is dark blue, this is the colour worn by Mothers in Palestine, Mary is both Virgin and Mother. The entire background is golden, symbolic of Heaven, where Jesus and Mary are now enthroned.
The gold also shines through their clothing, showing the heavenly joy they can bring to tired human hearts.
History of the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Icon
How it got there is a long story. Briefly, at the close of the 15th century, a merchant stole the picture from its shrine on the island of Crete, miraculously weathered a tumultuous sea voyage and finally brought it to Rome. There, before he died, he gave it to a Roman friend, begging him to have it placed in a worthy church. This the friend neglected to do.
Our Lady then appeared, urging the Roman to comply with the request, threatening him with even death. At his wife’s bidding, however, the man paid little heed to the apparition. Shortly after, he died.
Next Our Lady appeared to the little daughter of the family. “Go to your mother and grandfather”, she commanded, “and say to them: “Holy Mary of Perpetual Help warns you to take Her from your house; else all of you will soon die.” The girl relayed the message to her mother. Panic-stricken, the woman promised to obey.
Our Lady then told the little girl just where the picture should be placed: in the church “between the basilica of St. Mary Major and that of St. John Lateran.” In solemn procession, on March 27, 1499, it was carried to that church, the church of St. Matthew the Apostle. The same day a miracle occurred, a man’s arm, crippled beyond use, was completely restored.
So for 300 years, the picture hung over the main altar in the church of St. Matthew the Apostle, loved by all, renowned far and wide for miracles.
Then came June, 1798. Napoleon entered Rome. The church of St. Matthew was leveled to the ground. The picture disappeared.
For 64 years it remained hidden, almost forgotten, until… one day at recreation, in the Redemptorist home in Rome, one of the Fathers mentioned having read, in an old tome, that their present church, San Alfonso was built on the ruins of St. Matthew’s, where once was enshrined a miraculous picture; Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The name startled Father Michael Marchi. He recalled, as a boy, having served Mass in the oratory of the Irish Augustinians at Santa Maria in Posterula. There he had seen the picture. An old Brother had pointed it out to him.
Some months later, in February, Father Francis Blosi, S.J., preaching in the Gesu on “the lost Madonna of Perpetual Help, told how it was Our Lady’s wish that the picture be enshrined in the church, “between the basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.” Word got back to the Redemptorists. The Superior General was informed. But he waited three more years. He wanted to be certain.
Finally, on December 11, 1865, the whole matter was presented to Pope Pius IX. On January 19, 1866, the miraculous picture was brought once more to the site of its former glory, the church between the two basilicas, now that of San Alfonso. Three months later, it was solemnly enshrined. And on June 23, 1867 it was crowned.
The original picture of Our Lady, reputedly painted by St. Luke, was venerated for centuries in Constantinople as a miraculous icon. It was destroyed by the Turks in the year 1453.