Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Succour)

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A title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary, emphasizing her unfailing eagerness to pray for the welfare of human beings, especially those who seek her intercession. The original picture of Mary under this title is venerated in the Redemptorist church of Sant'Alfonso in Rome.

History. This picture, painted by an unknown artist in Crete in the 14th or 15th century, was brought to Rome c. 1495 by a merchant who apparently had stolen it from some church in Crete. In Rome he contracted a mortal illness, but before his death he consigned the painting to the friend in whose house he had been lodging, with the request that it be placed in some church, as a form of restitution. The friend promised, but later changed his mind at the request of his wife, who wished to keep the picture. Then Mary herself was seen in a vision by the little daughter of the family, and commanded that her picture be placed in a church dedicated to St. Matthew between the basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. To this child Our Lady also revealed herself as "Holy Mary of Perpetual Help."

Accordingly, on March 27, 1499, the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was solemnly enthroned on the high altar of St. Matthew's church, cared for by the Augustinians. A tablet narrating the history of the painting was affixed nearby. For the next three centuries Our Lady of Perpetual Help was venerated there, and many miracles were ascribed to her intercession. However, in 1798 the French army seized Rome and led Pius VI into captivity. Shortly afterward, the church of St. Matthew, together with 30 other churches of Rome, was leveled to the ground at the order of the French commander. The picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was removed by the Augustinians from the church before its destruction and after being kept for a short while in the church of St. Eusebius, was transferred to the private chapel of the Irish Augustinians at their monastery of Santa Maria in Posterula, where it remained in comparative obscurity for many years.

In 1863 Francis Blosi, SJ, preaching at the church of the Gesù on the Roman shrines of Mary, related the history of Our Lady of Perpetual Help at St. Matthew's and expressed the desire that the picture be found and again placed in a church between St. Mary Major's and St. John Lateran's. This came to the attention of Michael Marchi, a Redemptorist, who knew the whereabouts of the picture because as a boy he had served Mass in the private chapel of the Augustinians. In 1855 the Redemptorists had purchased land for their motherhouse and a church on the Via Merulana, including the site on which St. Matthew's had stood. When Pius IX heard the story, he commanded that the picture be given to the Redemptorists for their church, since it fulfilled the condition laid down in the vision"between the basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran." The superior general of the Redemptorists was told to give the Augustinians another picture in compensation.

The picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was exposed for public veneration above the high altar of the church of Sant'Alfonso on April 26, 1866. The feast of Mary under the title of Perpetual Help (though restricted to certain churches and not in the calendar of the universal Church) is June 27.

Iconography. The original picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is painted on wood, and it measures about 17 by 21 inches. It is distinctly Byzantine in style, and many similar portrayals of Our Lady are found throughout the East and in Russia. This manner of portraying Mary is a further development of the famous Hodegetria, an icon of Mary (painted by St. Luke, according to some) venerated for centuries in Constantinople but destroyed in 1453 when that city fell to the Turks.

In addition to Mary, the picture represents her divine Son as a child of two or three years old, seated on his Mother's left hand, with his hands clasping her right hand. On either side are the angels Michael and Gabriel, bearing the instruments of the Passion. In Greek characters the abbreviated names of the four figures are added. The artist wished to depict the mental anguish of Christ as He gazes at the cross, and with a touching stroke painted the left sandal falling off His foot as He winces in terror. This portrayal of the Passion of Christ in an image of Mary classifies the picture as a "Passion Madonna." Such pictures are found today in many Orthodox churches, such as the cathedral of Rethymnon on the island of Crete.

The title "Our Lady of Perpetual Help," originally derived from Mary's own apparition to the little girl, is also most appropriately symbolized by this picture. For, although the sufferings awaiting her Son are so vividly portrayed, Mary's face is turned, not to Him but to those who gaze on the picture. Though she is indeed saddened by the vision of the instruments of the Passion, her sympathy goes out primarily to the children of men.

Bibliography: c. m. henze, Mater de Perpetuo Succurso (Bonn 1926), first scientific monograph, extract; Our Lady of Perpetual Help, tr. f. j. connell (New York 1940). j. f. byrne, The Glories of Mary in Boston (Boston, Mass. 1921).

[c. henze]

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Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Succour)

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