An Ecumenical Icon of Abundant Redemption

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Three Redemptorists stand out among the many authors who have written on the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help during the last 150 years. The first is Fr. Clemens Henze, of the then Province of Cologne who, in 1926, published a work in Latin entitled Mater de Perpetuo Succursu. Prodigiosae Iconis Marialis ita nuncupatae monographia (Mother of Perpetual Help. Monograph on the so-named miraculous Marian icon) [1]. This work, written almost ninety years ago, remains an essential reference. The second is Fr. Fabriciano Ferrero, of the Province of Madrid, who dedicated his doctoral thesis presented to the Faculty of Ecclesiastical History at the Gregorian University in Rome, to the study of the icon. His work was published in Spanish in 1966 under the title Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro. Proceso histórico de una devoción mariana (Our Lady of Perpetual Help: The Historical Process of a Marian devotion). This work is still the only doctoral thesis specifically dedicated to our icon. In 1994, the same author published a book aimed at a wider audience: Santa María del Perpetuo Socorro. Un icono de la Santa Madre de Dios, Virgen de la Pasión (Holy Mary of Perpetual Help. An icon of the Holy Mother of God, Virgin of Passion)[2]. This book is, in the opinion of many, the best serious introduction to the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help available today. The third indispensable writer concerning the historical, artistic and theological knowledge of the icon is Fr. Mario Cattapan, of the Province of Rome, also the author of numerous articles[3].

I think a fourth scholar deserves to be included in this select group of writers who have made significant contributions to the knowledge of our icon: Matthew John Milliner, an American Protestant art historian. In 2011, Milliner defended a doctoral thesis in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University (New Jersey, United States) entitled The Virgin of the Passion: Development, Dissemination, and Afterlife of a Byzantine Icon Type[4].

The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help belongs to a type of Byzantine icons called “Virgin of the Passion”. Milliner’s work reflects on the historical circumstances and theological debates that led to the emergence of this kind of icons in the Byzantine world. At the beginning of his thesis, he notes:

Due to its enormous proliferation by papal command, [this image] has been called perhaps the most popular religious icon of the twentieth century. But despite an abundance of recent studies on the Virgin Mary in Byzantium, there has been little investigation into what first spurred this iconographical innovation. This dissertation pursues this question by exploring four themes related to the Virgin of the Passion in Byzantium: Power, painting, priesthood, and predestination[5].

The fact that Milliner is a Protestant author, specialized in the study of Orthodox art with a doctoral thesis on an icon that is world famous – thanks to the missionary activity of a Catholic congregation – is a testament to both the ecumenical value of our icon as well as to the global nature of the culture in which we live. Today, Our Mother of Perpetual Help is venerated by Christians of all confessions. Moreover, Shrines of our Mother of Perpetual Help in places like Singapore and India – attract several people outside the circle of the baptized.

Reflecting upon Milliner’s thesis and on the book Theology of the Icon, by Russian Orthodox iconographer and theologian Leonid A. Uspenski (1902-1987)[6], I offer my own thoughts on the ecumenical character of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in the context of our globalized world.

I will present in first place a brief introduction to the significance of icons in Orthodox theology and spirituality. Icons –their makers say­– are not “painted” but “written”; the icon is a work of visual theology. In order to appreciate them, we need to take into account the important place they hold in the Orthodox tradition, from where they draw their origin. In a second moment, I will study the birth and development of the type of icons known as the “Virgin of Passion” to which our icon belongs. Finally, I will present some thoughts on the ecumenical character of our icon and on the role it is called to continue playing in our globalized world.

I. What is an icon?

Leonid A. Uspenski writes:

The icon is not a simple image, or a decorative element, or even an illustration of the Holy Scriptures. The icon is something more: it is the equivalent of the Gospel message, an object of devotion that forms an integral part of the liturgical life. This explains the importance that the Church attributes to the image; not to any representation, but the specific image that she set up throughout history in her struggle against paganism and heresies, the image paid with the blood of a large number of martyrs and confessors of the faith during the iconoclastic period: for the orthodox icon[7].

In this explanation on what an icon is, we can find three elements:

First, the icon is a sacred object in the Orthodox Church. It is not a mere piece of decoration of Church buildings or monasteries, not just an instrument in the service of catechetical instruction of the faithful, although it can also perform these functions collaterally. It is the presence of what it represents. Almost quite a sacrament, it communicates the grace that comes from God.

Second, not every religious image can be considered an icon: The icon must respond to a canon. The icon painter is not an artist who seeks to produce an original work that bears the stamp of his personal genius. On the contrary, through asceticism and prayer, the iconographer strives to renounce his own ego in order to produce a work that is faithful to what the Spirit inspires. For this purpose, the author of an icon follows the canons of the iconographic tradition in a similar way a monk submits himself to the rule of his monastic order. He seeks a creativity not of his own but one that springs out of the process through which the Holy Spirit enlivens the Church. In this way, the iconographer is immersed in a creative process that goes beyond his own individuality and involves a community that, over a timeframe of centuries, is in a dialogue with those sacred realities that he seeks to represent.

For this reason, each icon follows a certain canon and belongs to a certain type. This does not mean, however, that their authors are simple copyists lacking personality. Although icons of a certain type resemble each other, they are not mere reproductions of a model, but products of a communal creativity that is well alive in the iconographer. The accomplished painter of icons is not somebody who externally reproduces a prototype: the iconographic canon has become in him or her, an inner rule. According to Uspenski, “this can only be done through the Holy Spirit.” [8].

The third feature that characterizes Orthodox iconographic tradition is that it has produced martyrs; it has been paid with blood. During the eighth and ninth centuries, the defenders of the icons (called ‘iconophiles’) suffered a cruel persecution at the hands of the iconoclasts. This serious crisis that, I will briefly describe below, purified and strengthened the devotion to icons, so that it became an essential part of the Christian way of faith we call Orthodoxy.

Iconoclast persecution began in 726 when Byzantine Emperor Leo III, the Isaurian, forbade the veneration of images. Patriarch Germanos of Constantinople refused to second him, and was exiled. The Emperor replaced Germanos with an iconoclast, Athanasius, who surrounded himself with bishops of the same trend. Many among the faithful – most of the monks, priests and bishops – resisted the destruction of images that had been decreed. They confronted both the civil power of the Empire and the Church hierarchy which had imposed it. In some cases, they witnessed to their veneration of icons with the shedding of their blood, in a similar way that martyrs, a few centuries earlier, had testified to their faith before pagan emperors.

Iconoclasts had to face not only faithful devotees ready for martyrdom, but also theologians ready for the debate of ideas. These wise men reflected deeply on what was at stake and proposed theological reasons for the veneration of icons. Iconophiles got a break when, in the year 780, the Empress Irene, close to their convictions, assumed the imperial throne. Taking advantage of this situation, the Second Council of Nicaea was convened in 787. It was attended by theologians and bishops from both sides. This council is considered the seventh and last Ecumenical Council of the Undivided Church and is recognized as valid by Catholic and Orthodox churches and most Protestant traditions.

Iconoclasts based their rejection of icons on Old Testament passages that forbid making images of God. Indeed, according to the Hebrew Bible, the one God of Israel transcends this world and therefore should not be represented with images, like the pagans do with their idols. Against this prohibition, iconophiles argued that while, in the Old Testament, God forbade the making of images; with Jesus Christ a new age has been inaugurated. Since in Jesus, God has wanted to assume a visible form, representing Christ as true man and true God, far from contravening divine will, was a way to bear witness to the Incarnation. In this regard, St John Damascene (675-749), one of the great iconophile thinkers, comments on the Old Testament passages that forbid the representation of images:

What is mysteriously indicated in these points of Scripture? It is clear that the prohibition is to represent the invisible God. But when you see the body that has become man because of you, then you will make representations of its human aspect. When the Invisible, clothed with flesh, has become visible, then you should represent the likeness of Him who has appeared … When He who, being the consubstantial image of the Father, has emptied himself and assumed the condition of a slave (Phil 2: 6-7) limiting himself in quantity and quality, clothed with carnal image, then paint it … and make visible to the sight of all, the One who wanted to become visible. Paint the His being born of the Virgin, paint His baptism in the Jordan, His transfiguration on Mount Tabor … paint everything with the word and with colors, in books and on wood” [9]

The Second Council of Nicaea is considered to be the conclusion of the six previous ecumenical councils. Its most important theme was Christology. These six councils strove to formulate, as accurately as possible, that Christ is true man and true God. Nicaea II draws the consequence: If it is true what earlier councils proclaimed, then it is legitimate and necessary that Christ should be represented in images. To deny this possibility is nothing less than denying the reality of the Incarnation. Uspenski comments:

Now, both in teaching and practice, iconoclasm undermined the very basis of this salvific mission of the Church. In theory, iconoclasm did not renounce the dogma of the Incarnation; on the contrary, iconoclasts justified their hatred of icons precisely on the basis of a greater fidelity to this dogma. But in fact, just the opposite happened: denying the human image of God, they denied by extension the sanctification of matter in general. Thereby they renounced all earthly holiness and even the possibility of sanctification (deification) of man. In other words, by rejecting the consequences of the Incarnation –the sanctification of matter and the visible world– iconoclasm was undermining the economy of salvation. With iconoclasm, the Incarnation of the Word loses its meaning[10].

To defend the icon is to argue for the “sanctification of matter”, a dynamism that has been unleashed on earth by the Incarnation of the Son of God. Icons express the possibility that human beings and the world that they inhabit can be transformed according to the image of the Risen Christ into a new creation. This is what was at stake in the fight against iconoclasm. And it was for this truth that those who sacrificed themselves in defense of icons gave up their lives.

Although victorious in the Council, peace did not last long for iconophiles. With the ascension to power of Leo V the Armenian in 813, iconoclastic persecution returned and it did not cease until another woman, Theodora, rose as regent to the imperial throne in 842. She has the honor of being the one who restored in Byzantium – this time definitively – the veneration of icons. To thank God for this triumph of the true faith, it was held for the first time in March 843, the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. Until today, the first Sunday of Lent, the Orthodox Church commemorates this victory in its liturgical calendar.

II. The creative process of the Virgin of the Passion

When we contemplate the image of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, we are not dealing with an individual’s work of art. This icon is, as with all others, the result of the creativity of a believing community that through the centuries has been shaping the typology we call the “Virgin of the Passion”.

Mario Cattapan proposed that the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help preserved in the Church of Saint Alphonsus in Rome is the oldest icon of this type. According to him, the production of the image can be situated around the year 1000[11]. Fabriciano Ferrero, however, claimed that our icon is not the oldest “Virgin of the Passion”, the oldest specimen of this typology is a fresco found in Arakos –Cyprus–dating from 1192[12].

The recent study by Milliner appears to agree with the Spanish Redemptorist Ferrero. According to the Milliner, the first exemplar of these type of icons can be found, as stated by Ferrero, in the Monastery of the Most Holy Virgin of Arakos (Panagia tou Arakos) near the village of Lagoudera, in the Troodos mountains in central Cyprus[13]. What remains today of the monastery is a wooden church, declared in 1985 by UNESCO World Heritage Site along with other churches and monasteries in the region. An inscription on the north entrance states that the building was decorated in 1192.

Arakos’s frescoes are preserved in excellent condition; among them is an image of Mary, standing with the child in her arms; two angels, left and right, show him the instruments of the Passion. This would be, according to Milliner, Ferrero and other experts, the oldest image of the Virgin of the Passion. This does not mean, however, that the other images of this type are derivations of this “original”. Milliner suggests rather otherwise: The existence of similar images from the thirteenth century in different parts of the Balkans and in the Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai (Egypt) suggests rather that this typology was known in the late twelfth century in a wide region under the influence of the Byzantine Empire. Milliner affirms:

The search for one lost prototype may be as unhelpful as the search for one definitive textual source. As discussed above, the type appears to be more than an invention of one particular artist, and may be connected to the Kecharitomeni monastery in Constantinople. But what cannot be proven should not distract us from what can: The Virgin of the Passion is the result of a slow crystallization of motifs that had been percolating in Byzantine Marian imagery for centuries. For example, a nearly contemporary Virgin and Child at Sinai is extremely close to the Virgin of the Passion at Lagoudera[14].

Milliner defends the probability that the prototypical version of this image could be an icon, now lost, which was upon a time in the Monastery of Kecharitomeni (‘Full of grace’ in Greek), in Constantinople. This is something that cannot be proven. What can be demonstrated is that there is a “collective” development of such images spanning three continents and for more than three centuries.

Milliner’s doctoral thesis offers a detailed study of the evolution of the Virgin of the Passion between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Here I wish to point to what this process finally leads to: According to a broad academic consensus, Andreas Ritzos (active between 1451 and 1491) gave to this type of icons its final form on the island of Crete.

Therefore, the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is most likely a work produced in the fifteenth century. We cannot pinpoint the exact date of its composition, but we can say –and this is essential– that its iconographic typology is the result of a tradition that has combined various theological and aesthetic intuitions in the image we see today. According to Uspenski, the “post-iconoclastic” period –that covers the ninth to sixteenth centuries­– was the most creative in the development of icons. In that era, more precisely between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, a community of iconographers scattered around the Eastern Mediterranean combined in a unique type of icon, a set of symbols. This is how the Virgin of the Passion was born, a typology of which Our Mother of Perpetual Help is a beautiful example.

III. Visual Theology of Redemption

Each of the elements of the rich symbolism of the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help has been widely discussed by many authors. Here I will focus on a statement proposed by Milliner in his thesis that seems relevant to the meaning of our icon in today’s context. According to Milliner, the American art historian, “the Virgin of the Passion is a statement about predestination as well”[15].

It may seem strange that “predestination” may be one of the themes of the icon of the Virgin of the Passion. Milliner bases this idea on the fact that the painters of the Virgin of Arakos designed the frescoes that decorated the church to show the parallelism between the image of Mary and the Hetoimasia, a relationship that also appears elsewhere. The Hetoimasia (literally in Greek “prepared”) is an image depicting an empty seat; this is the throne “prepared” by God to sit on it to judge the world at the end of times. Therefore it represents the ultimate destiny of humanity. According to Milliner, in the Temple of Lagoudera, “The Hetoimasia in the dome depicts God’s salvific intent beyond time, whereas the Virgin of the Passion below depicts that same intent activated in time”[16].

God’s judgment is not condemnation but salvation, justification and sanctification of man. Predestination to which the iconographic program of the Virgin of the Passion refers should not be understood in the sense of the doctrine of double predestination enunciated by Calvin. John Calvin (1609-1664), inspired by ideas of St. Augustine (354-430), said that some human beings are predestined by God to salvation and others to damnation[17].

Milliner argues that the predestination referred to in Byzantine paintings should not be interpreted according to the later doctrine of double predestination, but in the sense given by the Orthodox doctrine as expressed in the works of the Holy Fathers. He quotes Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373), who wrote that “The God of all things, who created us by His Word, knew what should befall us better than we ourselves… He prepared beforehand (προετοιμάζει) in His Word, through whom He created us, a provision for our salvation”[18]. Predestination according to Orthodox theology is not double (damnation/salvation), it is only redemptive. God does not want anyone to be condemned: In Christ, every human being is destined to the fullness of life. The image of the Virgin of the Passion visibly embodies this universal salvific will.

The doctrine of double predestination crept into the Catholic Church through the works of a Belgian Catholic bishop, Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), a zealous defender of the purity of customs in a Church that according to him had become too lax on moral issues.

In his particular interpretation of a gospel passage, Jansen understood that Christ died “for many” (Mk 10:45), but not “for all”. His conclusion is that only an elite group of Christians will be saved, all others are predestined to destruction. A consequence of this doctrine was that only the very pure can participate in the sacraments. Driven by the Jansenist influence, many priests in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries refused absolution to penitents who according to them did not show sufficient signs of conversion and whole masses of the faithful were separated from the sacraments.

It is a well-known fact that St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) was not only a staunch enemy of Jansenism, but also the author whose moral theology ended its pernicious influence in the Catholic Church, preparing a revival of Christian life throughout Europe and the rest of the world. The great contribution of the Alphonsian theology is to present to the faithful the merciful face of God, who never tires of forgiving, a benign God who does not want anyone to perish, because it is his will that all should be saved.

In this, we see the happy hand of Providence: Our Mother of Perpetual Help was handed by Pope Pius IX to an institute whose spirituality is grounded in the conviction that the divine will of universal redemption has been made abundantly accessible through Christ, born of the Virgin Mary.

Mary holds Jesus, who contemplates the instruments of the Passion. Suffering and death is the price he will pay for the Redemption of humanity. Christ, who “humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8), has gone – in a superlative way – through the dark valley we all have to traverse, but his fate was not obscurity and annihilation, but resurrection. Mary, in the icon, invites us with her gaze to participate in this struggle to overcome evil with love so that death may be finally transfigured into the light of the resurrection.

The proclamation of plentiful redemption is at the heart of Redemptorist mission. There is not a double predestination, because in God there is not a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’; in the Son of Mary we found only God’s ‘yes’ to humanity. This fundamental intuition of St. Alphonsus is already present as an expression of faith in the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, born in the Orthodox tradition; and a Protestant scholar, Milliner, has come to remind us of this.

God is love and offers abundant redemption to all. The shared mission of proclaiming God’s mercy should unite all who –in different churches and confessions– love Jesus and confess God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No wonder that even some who have not been baptized are attracted by the image of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, especially in some of the shrines in Asia. She, the Mother of God, makes us understand that we are not alone, no matter the sufferings we may have to endure. She holds in her arms the Savior who himself suffered the Passion so He can lead all men and women into the light of the resurrection. Nobody is excluded. All are embraced.


[1] C. Henze, Mater de Perpetuo Succursu. Prodigiosae Iconis Marialis ita nuncupatae monographia, Collegium Iosephinum, Bonn 1926.
[2] F. Ferrero, Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro. Proceso Histórico de una devoción mariana, Perpetuo Socorro, Madrid 1966; Santa María del Perpetuo Socorro. Un icono de la Santa Madre de Dios, Virgen de la Pasión, Perpetuo Socorro, Madrid 1994. English translation The Story of an Icon: The Full History, Tradition and Spirituality of the Popular Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, Liguori, Missouri 2002.
[3] Precisazioni riguardanti la storia della Madonna del Perpetuo Soccorso: Spicillegium Historicum 15 (1967) 353-381; Nuovi elenchi e documenti dei pittori in Creta dal 1300 al 1500: Thesaurismata 9 (1972) 202-235; I pittori Andrea e Nicola Rizo da Candia: Thesaurismata 10 (1973) 237-282; I pittori Pavia, Rizo, Zafuri di Candia: Thesaurismata 14 (1977) 199-239;
[4] This doctoral thesis can be downloaded for free in PDF format: http://dataspace.princeton.edu/jspui/handle/88435/dsp01wp988j82m (accessed 13th July 2015). Milliner’s web-site is: www.millinerd.com
[5] Milliner, op. cit., i.
[6] In this paper I use the Spanish translation from the original French: L. A. Uspenski, Teología del Icono, Sígueme, Salamanca 2013. An English translation is also available:  Theology of the Icon, 2 vols., St. Vladimir’s Seminary, New York 1992.
[7] Ibídem, 27.
[8] Ibídem, 21.
[9] Quoted by Uspenski, op. cit., 40.
[10] Ibidem, 154.
[11] M. Cattapan, Nuovi documenti riguardanti pittori cretesi dal 1300 al 1500, en: Atti del II Congresso Internazionale Cristologico (1965), Vol II, Atenas, 1968. Quoted by F. Ferrero, Santa María del Perpetuo Socorro, 100, footnote 5.
[12] F. Ferrero, Santa María del Perpetuo Socorro, 100-101.
[13] This web-page of the Department of Antiquities of the Government of Cyprus offers some images of the Monastery and its frescoes: http://www.mcw.gov.cy/mcw/da/da.nsf/All/9690D7CC438FE731C2257199003197BB?OpenDocument (accessed on 12th march 2016)
[14] Milliner, op. cit., 84.
[15] Milliner, op. cit.,132.
[16] Ibidem, 147.
[17] It is true that St. Augustine put an enormous emphasis on affirming that we are saved not by our own strength, but by the mercy of God. The Bishop of Hippo, however, never said that those who are not saved are condemned because God had predestined them to damnation.
[18] Quoted by Milliner, op. cit., 137.

Alberto de Mingo Kaminouchi (Province of Madrid)

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