Our Mother of Perpetual Help is the title of the Blessed Virgin Mary as represented in a celebrated 15th-century Byzantine icon also associated with the same Marian apparition. The icon originated from the Keras Kardiotissas Monastery and has been in Rome since 1499. Today it is permanently enshrined in the Church of Saint Alphonsus, where the official Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help text is prayed weekly.
The Redemptorist Congregation of priest and brothers they are the only religious order currently entrusted by the Holy See to protect and propagate a Marian religious work of art. In the Eastern Orthodox Church iconography, the image is known as the ”Virgin Theotokos of the Passion” due to the instruments of the Passion of Jesus Christ present on the image.
On 23 June 1867, Pope Pius IX granted the image its Canonical Coronation along with its present title. The feast day of the image is celebrated on June 27, with novena devotions held every Wednesday. Under Pope Pius XII’s Pontificate, the image was designated as the national Patroness of the Republic of Haiti and Almoradi, Spain. In addition, Pope John Paul II issued a canonical coronation for a similar image in Jaworzno, Poland in 16 June 1999.
Due to the propagation of the Redemptorist Priests since 1865, the image has become very popular among Roman Catholics. Modern reproductions are oftentimes displayed in residential homes, commercial establishments, and public transportation.
What is an Icon?
The name icon, or eikon in Greek, may be applied to any image, but in practice is confined to the flat paintings which take the place of statues in Eastern churches. Icons play a more conspicuous part in worship than do statues in the West. They are repeatedly incensed, kissed, carried in procession, and otherwise reverenced. The original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help belongs to a family of icons known as Hodegetria, which means ‘guide’ or ‘leader of the way’ and to a type known as the Virgin of the Passion. Icons are known as doors or “windows to the divine.” They help us to look beyond the physical world and focus on the spiritual realm. Artists who create icons are called iconographers. An iconographer “writes” the icon from his or her faith and seeks to present something of this mysterious world to others. While other icons may be valuable in themselves, the original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is all the more valuable for the devotion inspired by its contemplation.
Dionysius the Areopagite called Icons the “visible representations of supernatural things.” In an icon we are presented with more than an aesthetic experience. A sacred icon emanates the invisible presence of God. When we pray before the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help—as we surrender our self-preoccupation and become truly still—love for Christ and his Mother will awaken in us. The countenance of the icon will shine forth and radiate to our heart. This is more than mere symbolism or reflection.
“The icon is not just a reproduction of biblical scenes; it is, rather, their spiritual manifestation in the persons represented in the icon…. It is more than just an ordinary representation or a souvenir of events or persons from the past. It makes present that which it represents; it is a meeting point between the mystery of God and human reality.” (Meditations on the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, Marek Kotynski, CSsR, pp 22-23)
The Prayer of Gazing
The prayer of gazing before an icon is a powerful form of contemplative prayer. Prayer is descending with the mind into the heart and standing in the presence of God. Thus gazing devotedly on an icon is truly the practice of praying. In this course we will suggest ways to enter into a dialogue with Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The icon is perhaps the most widespread Marian image in the world, and it testifies to the fact that God was the first to love us, to choose us, and to reveal Himself to us in His immeasurable mercy. It is He who comes forward to meet us in this Icon through the intercession of Mary (pg. 35-36, Kotynski). We will also discuss how to understand the symbolic and sacred nature of this Icon, as well as some aspects of the contemplative practice most helpful in embracing this profound form of prayer.
Home of the Icon
The Church of Sant’Alfonso is the home of the original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. It is one of the rare examples of neo-gothic architecture in Rome and was built in 1855 and consecrated in 1859 by Cardinal Costantino Patrizi. It is located on the Esquiline Hill on the Via Merulana between the two basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.
Pope Pius IX Establishes Redemptorists’ Special Relationship to the Icon
Since 1866, the Redemptorists have spread devotion to Mary under the icon and title of Mother of Perpetual Help. According to tradition, the ancient Byzantine icon of Our Mother (or Our Lady) of Perpetual Help was stolen from a church in Crete where many miracles had occurred. The image remained in the private possession of a Roman merchant and his family until 1499 when it was publicly displayed in the Church of St. Matthew in Rome between the Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.
When St. Matthew’s was destroyed in 1789, the icon was rescued and hung in an obscure monastery chapel until the Redemptorists learned that the site of their new headquarters in Rome had once been the site of St. Matthew’s, the one-time home of a miraculous icon of Our Lady. A Redemptorist priest who, as a young man, had frequented the monastery chapel that displayed the icon informed his brothers where to find the image.
The Redemptorists asked Pope Pius IX for permission to move the icon to their new church, San Alfonso, which was built on the location of the icon’s earlier home. The pope granted his permission, and told the Redemptorists to “make her known throughout the world.”
The Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori is dedicated to St. Alphonsus Liguori, the founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists), who built and staff the church. The church is one of the rare examples of neo-Gothic architecture in Rome. It is one of the last papal churches of Rome, although the Redemptorists have possession of the church and its related complex.
It was built between 1855 and 1859, designed by the Scottish architect George Wigley. The facade made of brick and travertine features three doors. In the central tympanum of the door there is a polychrome mosaic, depicting Our Mother of Perpetual Help. The facade is further embellished by a rose window.
The interior decorations, rich with marble, from the end of the nineteenth century, are by the Bavarian painter and Redemptorist Max Schmalzl. The apse is crowned by a mosaic, put in place in 1964, depicting the Redeemer enthroned between Mary and St. Joseph. Below the mosaic hangs the original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, which was produced in Crete in the 14th century. It was given to the Redemptorists by Pope Pius IX in 1866. It enjoyed a papal visit from Pope John Paul II on 30 June 1991.