Allowing the Icon of our Mother of Perpetual Succour to speak to us
by Fr Juventius Andrade CSsR, Redemptorist
Stories are important, precious and sacred, especially when they are our stories or when we make the story our own! The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help has a variety of stories.
There is the traditional story of the unknown artist, probably from Crete, whose work of art was stolen by a merchant and over time eventually found a permanent home with the Redemptorists in Rome.
There is the spiritual story that painter of the icon wishes to tell in symbolic language about the mysteries of our faith.
There is the Redemptorist story of how the icon came into the hands of the Redemptorists in Rome and how Pope Pius IX gave them a mandate to ‘Make her known to the world’.
There is the personal story that speaks of our devotion to the icon and the way Our Mother of Perpetual Help has become a fountain of grace, drawing us into her loving embrace and helping us to taste and see the merciful love of Jesus her son.
The story of our life makes sense only against the background of this wonderful story of the Redeemer and His Mother.
In 1855, the Original Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Succour came into the possession of the Redemptorists, thanks to the intervention and direction of Pope Pius IX. In entrusting the icon to the Redemptorists, he gave them the command: Make her known throughout the world’. Today, this icon is one of the best recognized icons in the Western Church but also the Eastern and even orthodox Church. It is venerated not only among Catholics but also people of other denominations and even other faiths.
But first, what really is an icon? Icon, a Greek word, really means image. Today younger people will readily think of the icon that you double-click on the computer or phone. The older use of the word “icon” in the Byzantine Church refers specifically to a religious painting, usually on wood. But an icon is more than just a painting. It is seen as Painted Scripture. It tells a story. It speaks to our heart. An icon is a window opening us to heaven, to our God Jesus and His Mother and our own, Mary. And this particular icon invites us to an experience of a Mother and her Son. It invites us to speak to Mary, our Mother and Her Son and before this icon, we allow Mary our Mother and her Son to speak to us! What do her gentle eyes say to us? What does her Son say to us? What message do the Angels have for us?
We are used to telling our stories to this icon of hope, of mercy, of compassion and of love. Today, let us listen to the Icon tell its story. Remember this is the painted Gospel -written not with ink but paint. It is important to let yourself hear this Story speak to your heart! This Icon has the influences of three different types: Virgin of the Passion; Virgin of Tenderness; Virgin who points the Way.
Let us look at some of the features of this icon…
The Vibrant Colors
The colors in the picture of Our Mother of Perpetual Help are strong and vibrant, but the colors are not meant to just to catch your eye; they also speak about Mary. First, look at all the gold in the picture, particularly in the background. Why the gold? In the Roman world, gold was a symbol for divinity. So the artist is clearly saying here that this woman you look upon, Mary the Mother of God, is "full of grace," she is surrounded by the divinity of God. This divine grace is not simply surrounding her like a halo, it permeates her whole being; highlighted by the threads of gold we see woven into her garments. Finally, much more than highlighting the figures in the icon and the folds of the garments, the gold represents the light of God coming through the icon, radiating to those who pray before it.
Next there are the colours of Mary’s garments. She is wearing a red tunic and a dark blue mantle. It is said that red was the colour worn by virgins in the time of Christ, and the dark blue mantle was the colour worn by mothers. The dark blue of her mantle is quite different from the customary soft "powdery" blue you will often see in portraits of Mary. On a spiritual level, it symbolizes her faith, the faith that made it possible for God to become man. It also emphasizes her universal motherhood, with which she covers and protects all of her children, as if with a mantle. Her red tunic is very striking to the eye. It speaks of her great love and sacrifice; it is a reminder of her participation in the life and passion of Jesus. It is also a symbol of Mary’s openness to the Holy Spirit.
The garments of the Child in the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help even more strongly highlight the nature of Jesus, the Son of God, the Son of Mary. Jesus’ tunic is green, signifying life having its source in God. The red cincture that binds his waist symbolizes the blood Jesus shed for our redemption. The brown color of the cloak the Child wears over his tunic stresses the extraordinary gesture of humility and humbleness, a symbol of humanity. The combination of green and brown with red is a sign of Christ’s Divine and human natures. God loved us so much that he sent his Son to become one of us who gave his life for us in order that we might live.
The Two Archangels:
In the upper corners of the icon are the two archangels, Michael and Gabriel. On the right is Gabriel, whose name means “God is strong.” He was the angel who announced the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah (Lk 1:11-20) and the birth and mission of Jesus to Mary (Lk 1:26-38). He is dressed in a tunic and mantle of purple with white shading. His hands are covered with a veil of the same color and he is holding a cross with four black nails at its foot. His face is young, his head is uncovered, and his dark brown hair falls behind his neck and down his back. He has flaming wings of green and gold, and a circular halo, with stippling around its edges. He is looking at the child Jesus, in an attitude of adoration and offering. On the left is Michael, whose name means, “who is like God.” In the Book of the Apocalypse (12:7) he is the leader of the angelic hosts in the battle between the dragon (Satan) and his angels. He has a red tunic with a blue mantle that covers his hands and nearly all of his body. He is holding the other instruments of the passion: a pot in which stands a stick with a sponge and a soldier’s lance. He is holding them with the same reverence as Gabriel, for they are the symbols of Christ’s victory and our salvation.
Angels are usually depicted with musical instruments, but here they have Instruments of Passion and Redemption.
Michael: ‘Who is like God’: With lance and sponge: Michael fights against and overcomes Evil and Injustice
Gabriel: ‘The strength of God’: At Annunciation he proclaimed Incarnation. Now with cross and nails, he proclaims Passion
These are not instruments of torture and shame anymore. But trophies of redemption!
What are the struggles against evil and injustice – personally and in society? What is the Cross in your life and what are the nails? How do we allow our painful past to be redemptive enabling us to become not bitter persons but better persons?
When we remain angry, hurting and bitter at other people, it is like I take the poison and hope that you will die!
How can our experiences of pain, hurt, bitterness or shame be transformed into events of healing and growth?
Mother and Son
These figures are not stiff, rigid, aloof and erect. They are in love. They bend towards each other. Mary, the Mother leans towards her Son and her Son who rests in her arms, leans towards her. But they are not lost in their own little, private world…they look not inwards but outwards to the world, the future…to us.
The Person Of Jesus
Jesus is represented with brown hair and childlike features. His figure is fully proportioned. His face is mature, showing sadness and compassion like his mother’s. He is dressed in a green tunic, a red cincture, and a brown cloak. His garments, like those of his mother, are ornamented with gold. He also wears sandals but the one on his right foot is loose so that it allows us to see the sole of his foot. His face and entire figure seem to express a great serenity.
Eyes: The eyes are serene, and not in fear. Jesus is going to face life and its challenges, but He is not going to face it alone. He will be accompanied by His Mother to the very end, even the foot of the Cross.
The Two Sandals: Some persons point out to the fallen sandal and say that it has slipped off due to fear and so the Child clings to the Mother. But looking closely at the demeanour of the Child, Jesus appears serene although well aware of the reality of the Cross and the instruments of the Passion carried by the Archangel. How then, could we interpret the Sandals, especially the fallen one?
The Two Sandals refer to the two natures of Jesus, the Man-God- His Humanity and Divinity.
Again, the sandal has a wonderful meaning in the Book of Ruth and there it appears in the context of Redemption. An agreement or covenant today would be signed with pen and ink, but back then it was done through an exchange of a sandal. And so, the theme of covenant and redemption lurk behind this symbol.
And further, one could interpret in the sense of daily life. Our life is not always ordered. It is also messy, and relationships, events and things do not always fall in place. Sometimes life is ‘hanging by a thread…’ The hanging sandal could well represent that! And this is also the experience of our Man-God. Having experienced the ‘messiness’ of life, he know the mess we might be facing in our own lives.
The Person Of Mary
In the icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help, Mary is represented in half-figure on a background of gold. It is evident that the artist intended to depict her in a standing posture. She wears a red tunic, a dark blue hooded cape with a green lining, a cobalt-blue mantle that covers her hair and forehead. The tunic fits tightly around the neck and wrist and is bordered with broad bands of gold. The mantle also is interwoven and hemmed with gold, and the part that covers Mary’s brow is adorned with two golden stars.
You may reach out to Fr. Juventius Andrade Cssr at firstname.lastname@example.org