Painted in tempera on hard nutwood, 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. (The Hodeguitria, reputedly painted by St. Luke, was venerated for centuries at Constantinople as a miraculous icon. It was destroyed by the Turks in the year 1453.) This particular image, however, is THE ONE COPY singled out – by Our Lady herself – for special heavenly favors. You may see it today enshrined above the high altar at the Redemptorist Church of San Alfonso, in Rome. 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.
Next Our Lady appeared to the little daughter of the family. "Go to your mother and grandfather," She commanded, "and say 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. The diabolical Napoleon and his army entered Rome. The church of St. Matthew was leveled to the ground. The picture disappeared. For sixty-four years it remained hidden, almost forgotten, until ... one day at recreation, in the Redemptorist house 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 Mother 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.
IMPRESSED by the picture's message, over 5,000,000 people throughout the world have enrolled themselves in the Archconfraternity of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St. Alphonsus. All that is required for membership is to put your name on the Society's Official Register, at any church where the Confraternity is established. Members are counseled to have recourse to Our Lady in all their spiritual and temporal needs, to imitate her virtues, especially her Purity and Humility, to have by them, at all times, her picture or medal and to say each morning and evening three "Hail Marys" and a "Glory be to the Father."
The Picture's Meaning
Look at this copy of 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 at 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 many other symbols. Here are some of them:
- The Star on Our Lady's Veil: She is the Star of the Sea, who brought the light of Christ to the darkened world, the Star that leads us to the safe port of Heaven.
- Greek initial for "St. Michael the Archangel"; depicted holding the lance and stalk of hyssop with the sponge soaked in gall, symbols of the Passion.
- Mary's mouth is small for silent recollection. She speaks but little.
- Red tunic, the color worn by virgins at the time of Christ.
- Dark blue mantle, the color worn by mothers in Palestine. Mary is both Virgin and Mother.
- Christ's Hands, turned palms down into His Mother's, indicate that the graces of Redemption are in her keeping.
- Greek Initials for "Mother of God."
- Golden Crown was placed on the original picture by order of the Holy See, in 1867. It is a token of the many miracles wrought by Our Lady through invocation of her title, "Our Mother of Perpetual Help."
- Greek initial for "St. Gabriel the Archangel." He holds the Cross and the nails.
- Mary's eyes are large for all our troubles. They are turned toward us always.
- Greek initials for "Jesus Christ."
- Our Lady's left hand supports Jesus possessively: She is His Mother. It is a comforting hand for everyone who calls upon her.
- Falling sandal from Jesus' foot is, perhaps, the symbol of a soul clinging to Christ by one last thread – devotion to Mary.
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.
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