Our Lady of Perpetual Help, 13th Century
One legend, linked with the familiar picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, is reminiscent of Mary’s never-failing solicitude. That same legend was perhaps the inspiration to the artist who has given us the one picture of Mary under this glorious title.
The story tells us that when our dear Lord was yet a small boy, He loved to play in the garden. On one occasion the Archangels, Michael and Gabriel, appeared to Him and held before His tender eyes the instruments of His future torture – the cross, the nails, the lance. The little Jesus, in terror, fled into the house and sought refuge in the arms of His Mother. In His haste the Child nearly lost one of His sandals. In this picture it is seen falling from His foot. “From the meaning of this picture we see that Our Lord Himself went to Mary, Our Mother of Perpetual Help, when He was in danger and in need.” His love for Mary is, consequently, the source of our own love for her, for how would love have been born in us had He not loved her first and translated a spark of that fire into our hearts?
The name of Our Lady of Perpetual Help derives from one of the most famous of all pictures of Mary, an icon of the fourteenth century painted on walnut wood perhaps in Crete; from where it was thought to have been stolen by an Italian merchant and brought to Rome.
It was venerated, famous for miracles in the Roman Church of Saint Matthew, in charge of the Irish Augustinians for a century, when the church was destroyed by fire. The picture was saved, however, and in 1866 it was set up in the Redemptorist Church of Saint Alphonsus, on the site of Saint Matthew’s. In the following year it was crowned. Since then numberless copies and reproductions of the icons have gone all over the world, some of them themselves wonder-working.
Two angels in the picture, Michael and Gabriel, are showing the instruments of the passion to the Child, who clings to the Mother’s hand, shaking loose a sandal. The Mother reassuringly holds tightly to the Child’s hand.
One cannot look at the picture without being struck by the anxious, pained expression on the face of Our Blessed Mother. On the child’s face is seen the same shrinking fear He had during His agony in the garden – a shrinking fear not incompatible with a perfect resignation to God’s will. And in His fear He turns to His Mother for help.
The picture is an ancient piece of art. Until the fifteenth century it rested in Crete, where it was venerated as miraculous. It was brought by a merchant to Rome during the Turkish invasions. After a series of miraculous incidents, the picture came to rest in the Church of San Matteo, situated between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. Through an apparition to a young child, Mary herself designated that this was the place in which she would have it preserved. there, for three hundred years, it was the center of a great and deep devotion. so many miracles occurred that it became known as “The Very Miraculous Image.”
In 1812, when Napoleon marched into Rome, the Church of San Matteo was razed. For over forty years the picture lay in oblivion. Between the years of 1863 and 1865, many miraculous incidents led to its discovery in an oratory of the Augustinian Fathers at Santa Maria in Postulera.
Due to the zeal of Pius IX, who had prayed before this image as a child, the miraculous picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was once more publicly venerated, this time in the new Church of St. Alphonsus. On April 26, 1866, the Holy Father approved of the solemn translation of the picture, and of its coronation by the Vatican Chapter, June 23, 1867. This Holy Pontiff fixed the feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help to be celebrated on the Sunday preceding the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. He approved a Mass and Special Office for the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. Because this devotion became so popular, Pius IX organized a confraternity of Our Lady of Perpetual Succor and St. Alphonsus.