Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Iconic Icons: Our Lady of Perpetual Help

Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Sancta Mater de Perpetuo Succursu) is the name of an icon located in the Church of St. Alphonsus Ligouri (Sant'Alfonso di Ligouri all'Esquilino) in Rome. The history of the icon is shrouded in mystery: it first appeared in 1499, and it is linked with a larcenous merchant from Crete. When the merchant was on his way to Rome, his ship entered a brutal storm, and the sailors on-board implored Mary through the icon for help, and the Blessed Mother acquiesced. When the merchant arrived in Rome, he fell ill, and he entrusted the icon to another merchant, asking it to be placed in a church. The second merchant was hesitant to give the icon away; eventually he confided the story of the icon to his wife, and she decided to place it in their home rather than a church. Eventually (after the Virgin Mary appeared to numerous family members, asking the icon to be placed in a church), the wife gave the icon to the Augustinian Friars, who placed it in the Church of San Matteo.

Centuries later, this church, along with many others, was destroyed and pillaged to become an infantry base: thankfully, the friars were able to save the icon, eventually placing it in a side chapel of another church. Decades after this, the Redemptorist Fathers set up a Marian house of veneration (the Church of St. Alphonus Ligouri), which just so happened to be on the same site as San Matteo used to be.

The Redemptorist Fathers ended up discovering the story of the icon, and they asked Pope Bl. Pius IX to expose the icon to public veneration and give it an official Marian title. The Pope agreed, and the icon was moved to St. Alphonsus Ligouri and given its official title, and it remains there to this day.

This icon is unique in its depiction of the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child. Besides the switching of the typical pattern of colors representing the Theotokos in iconography (although this reversed pattern is also seen in another famous Marian icon, Our Lady of Czestochowa, which I will cover in another post, so I need to investigate the meanings of these colors more), with a blue mantle symbolizing her humility over a red robe symbolizing the Passion, the depiction of Jesus is very special. While Mary is looking towards the viewer of the icon, Jesus is looking neither at her nor the viewer: instead, He is looking up, frightened, at two angels holding instruments of His Crucifixion, St. Michael holding the lance and sponge and St. Gabriel holding a 3-bar cross and nails. The icon also shows a single sandal falling from Jesus' feet (leaving Him completely discalced): one interpretation of this that I've heard is that it represents how the Christ Child ran to His mother and leaped into her arms--losing His sandal in the process--when He became frightened by seeing the angels.

This icon is also known in the Eastern Church as well, where it is known as the Theotokos of the Passion, a Hodigitria-type icon of the Theotokos. In both Churches, this icon is liturgically celebrated, on June 27th in the Western Church and April 30th (and the Sunday of the Blind Man) in the Eastern Church. In addition, there is also a tradition in both churches (though not unanimously held) that this is an icon originally written by St. Luke using a table of the Holy Family's that was built by St. Joseph. (This is not the only icon thought to be of Lucan origin: Our Lady of Czestochowa has this same tradition.)

Our Lady of Perpetual Help is the patron saint of Haiti, and she is also widely venerated in the Philippines. Most likely due to the fact that Redemptorist Fathers were among the major missionary groups that brought Christianity to the Philippines, this icon is celebrated every Wednesday in many parishes in the Philippines, and a novena published by the Redemptorist Fathers of Ireland is popular there, along with the icon being displayed frequently in parishes, homes, and public transport.

In conclusion, let us remember the Passion of the Lord by venerating the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and let us ask for her intercession.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Theotokos of the Passion, pray for us!

Nota Bene: I have to admit that this post is mostly an adaptation of the Wikipedia page on Our Lady of Perpetual Help, with a little information from the Orthodox Wiki page on the Theotokos of the Passion thrown in. Besides that, there is little extra information I provided.

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