Sunday, March 27, 2011

Our Lady of Perpetual Help

One of the wonderful things about historic Christianity is the use of images and icons for the edification of God’s people. One particular icon that I am falling in love with the more I learn about it is Our Lady of Perpetual Help (pictured above). It is an icon which dates back to at least the 15th century (possibly further). It is based on the Hodegetria icon, which according to legend was painted by St. Luke (pictured below).

The richness of the imagery in Our Lady of Perpetual Help really is beautiful. I for one was completely unaware of just how deep the thought of the iconographer was. I recently learned some of the deeper truths taught by the icon, and I thought I would share it with you. My prayer is that it will be as much a blessing to you as it was to me.
Firstly, the Greek initials located at various points of the picture...above the angels on the left and right are the names of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel respectively. Above their names is the title “Mother of God”. Next to the Christ Child are the Greek letters for “Jesus Christ”. And so the onlooker is introduced to those depicted in the icon.
The story behind the icon is that it depicts an episode in our Lord’s childhood when he was overwhelmed by fright when the Archangels appeared to Him showing Him the instruments of His Passion. St. Michael presented the lance which pierced His side and the gall-sop with the bowl filled with gall and vinegar. St. Gabriel presented to our Lord the cross and the nails. Our Lord ran to His mother in haste (hence the loose sandal – which may also symbolise those who are clinging to Christ by one last thread).
Upon first glance, it appears that our Lord is disproportionate to our Lady; but upon a closer look you will see that the reason the iconographer did this was so that the outline of our Lord and His Blessed Mother would be one. This is because the Life of our Lord is so closely connected with the life of Mary that it is impossible to separate the two.
The background is gold to depict heavenly glory, where both our Lord and Mary now dwell. This gold shines through their clothing showing that the glories of heaven are made available to us through the Lord and His Mother.
Mary’s right hand, as in the Hodegetria, points us to Christ. Our Lord’s hands in turn rest on hers, but they do not cling. This is to show that whilst our Lord sought Mary’s comfort, He was still her God. Also, His hands are facedown, indicating that it is to her that the graces of His redemption are entrusted.
Mary’s left hand lovingly supports her Son, just as her heart did in His Passion. Our Lord is gazing into the distance contemplating His “fate”; whilst Mary’s eyes are sorrowfully turned towards us, her children.
Mary’s mouth is unusually small – this symbolises that she was often given to silent contemplation; treasuring the Mysteries of Christ in her heart.
There is so much more depth to this icon...and I have only just scratched the surface. If you are interested in learning a little more, here is a link which has a bit of an interactive interface. Have a look, it is really quite well done.

There is so much more that could be said about the colours used, or the various other symbols included in the icon. I suppose that is the beauty of an icon – it leaves much to the contemplation of the beholder. And like the Scriptures, the more time you spend in delving their depths, the more you learn and the deeper your contemplation becomes.
So, next time you come across Our Lady of Perpetual Help...take a few minutes to stop and reflect on the wonders contained within this truly magnificent icon. And as you meditate, may you be led closer to the Lord by the hand of our Blessed Mother.


  1. Justin,
    Thank you for this information about Lady of Perpetual Help icon. My mother had this image on our living room wall while I was growing up. After her death, the icon went to my eldest sister, Mary. I found a copy of the print in a nice frame at the local St. Vincent De Paul thrift store. What a treasure! Now, I too can have the icon on my wall at home.
    I had heard what some of the symbols meant before, but between your comments and the website you pointed to, I feel better informed.
    God Bless you!

  2. Hi Rick

    It really is a stunning icon...and right now I'd have to say that it is my personal favourite :)

    God bless