The origins Our Lady of Perpetual Help (or Our Lady of Perpetual Succor) are about as varied as the countries in which she is venerated. Some believe that the walnut-wood icon was written sometime between 1325 and 1480 in Crete; others believe Saint Lazarus the Iconographer wrote it sometime in ninth century; still other traditions attest that it comes from the hand of Saint Luke himself.
Even with different beginnings, all converge into two agreed-upon details: the icon ended up at Keras Kardiotissas Monastery in 1498 and was stolen by a merchant for his private collection in 1499. Although it may have been providential, noted Father Mikhailo Kuzma, a regular guest on Morning Air and pastor for Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Byzantine Church: an invasion of Crete shortly thereafter put the monastery’s sacred art and space at risk. “Maybe by stealing it, he might have saved it.”
The icon only stayed in the merchant’s private collection for a year. When he kept it, despite being urged by Our Lady in dreams not to hold onto it, he quickly fell ill and passed. His family kept the icon and Our Lady visited once again, asking that the icon be given to a church for public exposure. This time, she revealed her name and intentions to the merchant’s six-year-old daughter.
When she said that “Holy Mary of Perpetual Help” should be given to the church of San Matteo on Esquiline Hill in Rome – the family placed icon back in the public eye. It remained in San Matteo for 300 years and was affectionately called the “Madonna di San Matteo”. When war threatened Rome’s timeless art and countless churches, the icon was hidden in a way reminiscent of Our Lady of Montserrat – tucked away in another church for almost 70 years at papal request for its safety.
In 1865, Pope Pius IX brought it out of hiding and gave possession of the holy icon to the Redemptorists. He had one request: that Holy Mary of Perpetual Help be revealed to the whole world. The icon was restored and coronated the following year; copies were then distributed to Redemptorist parishes worldwide and devotion to this Marian icon skyrocketed, especially in Poland and Ukraine.
“The Redemptorists did a heck of a job,” Father Kuzma commented, thinking of his Ukrainian roots, “almost every family in western Ukraine knows that icon. It’s found in many homes and is precious.”
He continued, pointing out the clarity of the icon’s purpose: “Her name indicates what she’s about. You can go to her any time, and you can be assured she’s going to help you.”
For Father Kuzma, this icon reminds him of his grandmother. “I see my grandmother praying in front of that icon, praying and fasting. And I feel strongly that Our Lady chose to answer my grandmother’s prayers to call forth a vocation from me – a kid who hadn’t even thought about the priesthood.”
This gold leaf and twice-restored icon is unique, even among Byzantine depictions of the Blessed Mother. Her pose is the Hodegetria, “indicator of the way”; she points to Jesus, from the tilt of her head to the position of her hand as she holds Him.
What makes Our Lady of Perpetual Help especially unique is that Jesus is also holding onto His mother. The tools of the Crucifixion surround Mary and Jesus (St. Michael holding the spear, the rod, and the wine-soaked sponge at left, and St. Gabriel holding the three-barred cross at right), his sandal falling off His foot and a perturbed face show us that He makes haste to His mother, His consolation. By experiencing this icon, we are also being invited to find consolation and help in Mary’s arms.
“She’s looking at us,” Father Kuzma tells us. “Come hold onto her hand, like Jesus is holding onto her hand. Go to Our Lady, she will hold you. She is the safest place in the world.”
Our Lady is celebrated under many names, from popular apparitions to small-town titles. Each reveal something different about the Blessed Mother to us – and affirms what we already know of her love and intercessory power! Deepen your devotion to Our Lady with Miracles, Mysteries, & Mary, a monthly collection of stories, Church teaching, reflections, and so much more – guaranteed to expand your knowledge of Our Blessed Mother. Sign up today to receive this Marian content, right to your inbox, and check out our archive page to catch up on our year of Our Lady!