As one looks at the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual help, it is important to remember that it is an Icon, painted by an anonymous artist, in the style of the Virgin of the Passion that represents the Christian mystery of Redemption.
1. What Is an Icon?The Greek word “eikon”, from which comes the word “icon”, means “image”. Christians first used the word to describe Jesus Christ: He is the image [icon] of the invisible God [Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3]. Nevertheless, when we speak of an icon we usually mean not only a representation of Christ, but the Blessed Virgin or a Saint, that has been painted according to specific technical and theological norms.
An icon is much more than a simple representation of events or persons of the past. An icon makes present that which it remembers. It is a meeting point between the mystery of God and the reality of Man. An icon is not an altar decoration so much as it is an altar in of itself. This is why in the Oriental liturgies, the icons are venerated along with the Word of God.
An icon is the fruit of prayer. The artists that painted icons would compose the pictures in an atmosphere of penance and prayer. While they worked and prayed they would think of those who one day would pray before the icon that they were painting. icon artists were usually monks who meditated on the mysteries of God and presented in images and colors, their spiritual insights. They shared their faith and spirituality with others through art.
An icon is an object of meditation. When we come before an icon with at prayerful attitude, we can deepen our understanding of the mysterious reality that it represents and better appreciate the value of liturgical prayer. Icons were created to foster contemplation.
2. An Unknown ArtistThe great majority of icon artists are hidden in anonymity. Among the few known that painted icons of the Virgin of the Passion, Andrea Rizo de Candia [1422-1499] of the school of Crete, is remembered as producing outstanding works of art.
The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual help belongs to this school, but we cannot pinpoint the exact date of it completion. What we can say with all probability is that the artist was a monk and lived in Crete. An ancient legend attributes the first icon of the Virgin of the Passion to St. Luke the Evangelist. In this way the artists of Marian icons established a connection between their works and the first Christian community that had personally known Christ and His Mother. This legend is more a theological resource than a historical affirmation, since the techniques used in paintings of the 1st century are quite different than those used in the painting of icons. The earliest icons were painted in the 6th Century, while most of the known icons are actually dated from the 12th Century and later.
3. Cultural & Theological InfluenceJust as Eastern art had a great influence in the West, so the Western influence was felt in the East, especially in the 12th and 13th centuries. Art is ever influenced by popular piety, and at that time there was great emphasis placed on the human nature of Jesus. Devotion to Our Lord’s passion and to Our Lady’s dolours (sorrows) occupied people’s devotions to Christ and His Holy Mother. Two strong influences in this direction were the great saints of that time, St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Francis of Assisi.
This emphasis was felt largely in the East through the Franciscan friars evangelizing in the eastern Mediterranean. One artistic manifestation of it was the emergence of the class of icons called Cardiotissa, from the Greek word kardia, meaning heart. Cardiotissa means “having a heart” or showing sympathy and mercy and compassion. In them the face of Our Lady appears full of sorrow, yet supremely dignified in her contemplation of the sufferings of her Son. His passion is represented by angels holding instruments of His passion – most often the cross, the lance, the sponge and the nails. Icons of this type in Russia were called Strastnaya (from the verb to suffer). The Our Mother of Perpetual Help icon is of this type.
4. The Virgin of the PassionThe icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is painted on a plaque of wood measuring little over 21 inches high and about 14 inches wide. The icon shows four holy images: The Virgin Mother of God, the Christ child, and the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. These personages are identified by the letters that appear in the icon.
Throughout history it has received two basic titles. For artistic reasons and in accord with the style of the image, it has been called “the Virgin [or Theotokos] of the Passion” Icons of the Virgin of the Passion usually represent the Mother of God holding her Son Jesus and to the sides, the angels carrying the instruments of the Passion of Christ. The other title that it bears comes from the devotion that surrounds it: “Our Mother [or Lady] of Perpetual Help.” In our icon, the Mother of God is depicted looking tenderly at her devotees and every ready to help them in whatever need.
Only half of the Virgin’s body is depicted but the impression is that she is standing. She is clothed in a tunic (or dress) of dark red, which was long reserved in the Byzantine world for the Empress alone, indicating the Queenship of Mary. We know that reddish purple was considered the noblest color in the ancient world. Recall that Our Lord said “Those who are clothed in purple and fine linen are in the houses of kings.” Some commentators on color claim that bluish purple became the color of penance in the Western Church (during Lent and Advent) because purple is a combination of blue and red.
Our Lady is also wearing a dark blue hooded cape [in the original, some reproductions have darkened the cape to black] with a green lining, a cobalt blue headdress that covers her hair and forehead. The blue reminds us of heaven, to which we wish to arrive by our penance, and the red recalls martyrdom, because all penance requires a dying to oneself, especially mortifying inordinate desire for food and pleasure. In the center of her head on the hood, there is a star of eight golden linear rays; next to it is gold cross in the form of a star. The circular halo around her head, typical of the Cretan school, at one time had a jeweled crown that has been removed in the original but retained in some reproductions.
The Virgin’s face is slightly inclined toward the Christ Child whom she holds in her left hand. Her larger right hand [its long fingers typical of images that indicate the way] holds the hand of Jesus. With a sad tenderness, she looks not to her Son but appears to be in dialogue with whomever gazes upon her [the universal perspective]. Her almond-shaped, honey colored eyes and emphasized eyebrows impart a sense of solemn beauty.
The Child Jesus is shown in full proportion, resting in the left arm of the Virgin while His hands clutch her right hand. He is dressed in a green tunic, a red cincture and cloak. He is wearing sandals but the one on the right foot is loose so that one can see the sole of his foot.
The Child Jesus is shown with an adult face and a high brow, indicating His divine Mind of infinite intelligence. As God, He knew that the angelic apparition was prophetic of His future passion. Yet in His human nature as a small child, He is frightened and runs to His Mother for protection. Our Lady hastily picks Him up and clasps Him to her bosom. This action is indicated by the fact that the Lord’s right foot is nervously curled about the left ankle and in such haste that His right sandal has become loosened and hangs by a single strap. Further action is indicated by the way the Child Jesus clasps His Mother’s right hand with both of His, holding tightly to Our Lady’s thumb.
We have no definitive knowledge of what this loose sandal represents but traditionally there are three explanations, artistic, medical, and cultural: Artistic: In many icons, to show the sole of the foot is equivalent to depicting the human nature of the Person [person] in the picture, and this is the one generally accepted by the Church. Medical: The degree of a person's consciousness can be perceived according to the reflexes in the sole of the foot [Babinski’s Reflex]. A sudden movement in the nape of the neck causes a movement in the sole of the foot. Cultural: In ancient Israel, when someone wanted to cede their rights to another, he would take off his sandal and give it to the beneficiary [Ruth 4; 7-8].
Christ has brown hair and the features associated with a child. His feet and neck position appear to express a brusque movement caused by something that He suddenly senses, perhaps His coming Passion, represented by the cross and nails in the hands of the Archangel Gabriel. The Archangel Michael presents Him with the other instruments of His Passion: the lance, the pole with a sponge, and a vessel containing vinegar.
The archangels Gabriel and Michael wear tunics of purple since they carry the instruments of the passion and death of Christ. The angels holding the instruments of the Passion have their hands covered with a protecting veil as a sign of reverence in handling sacred objects. In some Eastern rites, for example the Armenian, the deacon has his hand covered with a silken veil when he carries the gospel book. And in the Roman Rite, the priest covers his hands with the humeral veil when blessing the people at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
In the usual Byzantine style, the figures of the icon are identified with abbreviations of their names. In this icon Mary is designated by her chief title to glory: Mother of God. The Greek letters are thus, using approximations because most browsers do not have Greek fonts installed: MP - OY [O is really the letter theta] = Mother of God, on the two sides of the upper part of the icon; IC - XC = Jesus Christ, to the right of His head; OAM = Archangel Michael, above the Angel on the left as you look at the icon; OAT [the Greek letter tau] = Archangel Gabriel, above the Angel on the right, as you look at the icon.
Thus the picture of the Mother of Perpetual Help is a traditional Byzantine icon of Our Lady, but modified by the medieval softening of features in Cardiotissa style, touching the emotion and showing an action story proper to this art form. Our Lady’s face is of unspeakable majesty and calm and yet her large eyes, partly closed, express ineffable sorrow and sympathy. Our Lady is not looking at Jesus, but rather to us, her adopted children, as if to express compassion for us in our fears and sorrows.
5. The Mystery of the RedemptionThe icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is not a decoration so much as a message, a dissertation about the central mystery of our Catholic Faith. The different elements in the icon tell us about God-with-us, the Way of the Cross, the loving intercession of Mary and the glory of the Divine Light - the golden background.
In Mary's body the promise of salvation became a fleshed reality when the Son of god took on our human nature. When His human life ended on the Cross, she was there as His first disciple. It was in those last moments that Jesus designated her to be the Mother of the Church: "Behold your Mother [ John 19:27]."
The largest figure in the painting is Mary, but she is not the focal point. The center is rather in the joining of her hand with those of Jesus and the manner in which she points out that her Son is Jesus Christ, the son of God Who offer His life for the Redemption of all and the Salvation of repentant sinners. Mary points out and directs us to Jesus our Savior.
The Christ Child appears as a victim to be offered, much the same as in the Presentation in the Temple [Luke 2:22-40]. Mary's attitude reminds us of the Gospel words: "Mary stood at the foot of the Cross" [John 19:25], not collapsed in pain but erect, strong and valiant. All the elements of the composition accentuate the reality of suffering, as noted in our Mother Mary's face, the movements of the Child Jesus, and the instruments of the Passion. At the same time there is an emphasis on Christ's triumph, represented by the golden background and in the way the Angels carry the instruments of the Passion, less as weapons of death, than as trophies of victory, as if they were taken from calvary on Easter morning.
It is understandable why the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help draws us to pray: it is the synthesis of the mysteries of Salvation. One can understand why some many like to say the Rosary before an image of this icon.
Sources * compiled & adapted: catholictradition.org, marys-touch.com