Today is the feast day of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Ora pro nobis.
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 is the story of an unknown artist, a repentant thief, a curious little girl, an abandoned church, and old religious and a Pope.
1. The merchant who stole “our Lady” There is a tradition from the 16th century that tells of a merchant from Crete who stole a miraculous picture from one of its churches.
He hid it among his wares and set out westward. It was only through Divine Providence that he survived a wild tempest and landed on shore. After a year he arrived in Rome with his stolen picture.
It was there that he became mortally ill and looked for a friend to care for him. At his hour of death, he revealed his secret of the picture and begged his friend to return it to the church. His friend promised that he would do so, but because his wife did not want to relinquish such a beautiful treasure, the friend also died without fulfilling the promise. At last the Blessed Virgin appeared to the six year old daughter of this Roman family and told her to tell her mother and grandmother that the picture of Holy Mary of Perpetual Help should be placed in the Church of St. Matthew the Apostle, located between the basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.
The tradition relates, how, after many doubts and difficulties, “the mother obeyed and after consulting with the priests in charge of the church, the picture of the Virgin was placed in St. Matthew’s on the 27th of March, 1499.” There it would be venerated during the next 300 years. thus began the second phase of the history of the icon, and devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help began to spread throughout the city of Rome.
2. Three Centuries in the Church of St. Matthew
St. Matthew’s Church was not grand but it possessed an enormous treasure that attracted the faithful: the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual help. From 1739 to 1798 the church and adjacent monastery was under the care of the Irish Augustinians who had been unjustly exiled from their country and used the monastery as a formation center for their Roman Province. The young students found an abode of peace in the presence of the Virgin of Perpetual Help while they prepared for the priesthood, the apostolate and martyrdom.
In 1798, war raged in Rome and the monastery and church were almost destroyed; several Augustinians remained there for a for more years, but they, too, had to leave, some returning to Ireland, others to America, while most of them moved to a nearby monastery. This last group brought the icon with them. Thus began the third stage of her history, the “hidden Years.”
In 1819, the Irish Augustinians moved to the Church of St. Mary in Posterula near the “Umberto I’ bridge that crosses the Tiber, and with them went the icon. But as “Our Lady of Grace” was already venerated in this church, the newly arrived picture was placed in a private chapel in the monastery where it remained, all but forgotten, but for Brother Augustine Orsetti, one of the original friars from St. Matthew’s.
3. The Old Religious and the Young Boy
The years passed and it seemed that the icon had been saved from the war that destroyed St. Matthew’s, was about to be lost in oblivion.
A young altar boy, Michael Marchi, often visited the Church of Sancta Maria in Posterula and became friends with Brother Augustine. Much later, as Father Michael, he would write:
“This good brother used to tell me with a certain air of mystery and anxiety, especially during the years 1850 and 1851, these precise words: ‘Make sure you know, my son, that the image of the Virgin of St. Matthew is upstairs in the chapel: don’t ever forget it . . . do you understand? It is a miraculous picture.’ At that time the brother was almost totally blind.
“What I can say about the venerable image of the ‘Virgin of St. Matthew,’ also called ‘Perpetual Help,’ is that from my childhood until I entered the Congregation of the Redemptorists I had always seen it above the altar of the house chapel of the Augustinian Fathers of the Irish Province at St. Mary in Posterula . . . there was no devotion to it, no decorations, not even a lamp to acknowledge its presence . . . it remained covered with dust and practically abandoned. many were the times, when I served Mass there, that I would stare at it with great attention.”
Brother Augustine died in 1853 at the age of 86, without seeing fulfilled his desire that the Virgin of Perpetual help be once again exposed for public veneration. His prayers and boundless confidence in the Virgin Mary seemed to have gone unanswered.
4. The Rediscovery of the Icon
In January of 1855, the Redemptorist Missionaries purchased “Villa Caserta” in Rome, converting it into the general house for their missionary congregation that had spread to western Europe and North America. On this same property were the ruins of the Church and Monastery of St. Matthew. Without realizing it at the time, they had acquired the land that, many years previously had been chosen by the Virgin as her sanctuary between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.
Four months later, construction was begun on a church in honor of the Most Holy Redeemer and dedicated to Saint Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Congregation. On December 24, 1855, a group of young men began their novitiate in the new house. One of them was Michael Marchi, the former altar boy.
The Redemptorists were extremely interested in the history of their new property. But more so, when on February 7th, 1863, they were puzzled by the questions from a sermon given by the famous Jesuit preacher, Father Francesco Blosi, about an icon of Mary that “had been in the Church of St. Matthew and was known as The Virgin of St. Matthew, or more correctly as The Virgin of Perpetual Help.”
On another occasion, the chronicler of the Redemptorist community “examining some authors who had written about Roman antiquities, found references made to the Church of St. Matthew. Among them was a particular citation mentioning that in the church had been an ancient icon of the Mother of God that enjoyed “great veneration and fame for its miracles.” Then “having told all this to the community, a dialogue began as to where they could locate the picture. Father Marchi remembered all that he had heard from old Brother Augustine Orsetti and told his confreres that he had often seen the icon and knew very well where it could be found.”
5. The Reception of the Icon by the Redemptorists
With this new information, interest grew among the Redemptorists to know more about the icon and to retrieve it for their church.
Pope St. Pius IX gives the Icon of Perpetual Help to the Redemptionist Missionaries
The Superior General, Fr. Nicholas Mauron, presented a letter to Pope Pius IX in which he petitioned the Holy See to grant them the Icon of Perpetual help and that it be placed in the newly built Church of the Most Holy Redeemer and St. Alphonsus, which was located near the site where the old Church of St. Matthew had stood. The Pontiff granted the request and on the back of the petition, in his own handwriting, he noted:
“December 11, 1865: The Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda will call the Superior of the community of Sancta Maria in Posterula and will tell him that it is Our desire that the image of Most Holy Mary, referred to in this petition, be again placed between Saint John and St. mary major; the Redemptorists shall replace it with another adequate picture.”
According to tradition, this was when Pope Pius IX told the Superior General: “Make Her known throughout the world!” In January, 1866, Fathers Michael Marchi and Ernest Bresciani went to St. Mary’s in Posterula to receive the picture from the Augustinians.
Then began the process of cleaning and retouching the icon, the task of which was entrusted to the Polish artist, Leopold Nowotny. On April 26, 1866, the image was again presented for public veneration in the Church of St. Alphonsus on the Via Merulana. With this event the fourth phase of her history began: the spread of the icon throughout the world.
6. The Latest Restoration of the Icon
In 1990, the picture of Our Mother of Perpetual Help was taken down above the Main altar to satisfy the many requests for new photographs of the icon. It was then that the serious state of deterioration of the image was discovered; the wood, as well as the paint, had suffered from environmental changes and prior attempts at restoration. The General Government of the Redemptorists decided to contract the services of the Vatican Museum to bring about a general restoration of the icon.
The first part of the restoration consisted of a series of x-rays, infra-red images, and analysis of the paint and other tests. It was determined that the wood of the Icon of Perpetual Help could safely be dated from between 1325-1480.
The second stage of the restoration involved filling cracks and perforations in the wood, cleaning the paint and retouching affected sections, etc. This work was limited to the absolute minimum because all restorative work, somewhat like surgery, always provokes some trauma. An artistic analysis concluded that the pigmentation of the paint after the 17th century; this would explain why the icon offers a synthesis of oriental and occidental elements, especially in its facial aspects. (1)
The original picture painted on gold ground, is the work of a devout and skillful master. The best judges concede that it must have been painted in the 13th or 14th century, in the East, as its Grecian or Byzantine style plainly shows. The Blessed Mother, in half-figure, has her child on her left arm, and in her right hand, she holds the hand of her Divine Infant. Her beautiful eyes are directed towards the beholder with an expression of tender reproach, and speak eloquently of her great anguish at the sufferings of her Son. On either side of her head are four Greek letters, which stand for the words “Mother of God.”
The Divine Infant is in full figure. On his head is a crown. He wears sandals, one of which is fastened to his left foot, the other hangs loose from the right. Over his left shoulder are the Greek letters signifying “Jesus Christ.” He clasps his mother’s right hand in both his own, as though seeking protection from the instrument of His Passion, presented to Him by the two angels at his side. The Angel on the right, over whom are to be seen in Greek the initials of the name of “Michael the Archangel,” presents to the Holy Child, the Lance, the Reed and the Sponge of His future Passion, while the Angel on the left holds up before His gaze four nails and a cross, with two beams, as well as the tablet of the inscription; over Him are the initials in Greek of “Gabriel the Archangel.” The drapery of the picture is exquisite. (3)
Image: Crop of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Byzantine icon said to be 13th or 14th century (7)
Research by REGINA Staff
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