The Icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help: A Theological reading from the “Iconographic Detail”


The Jubilee anniversary (1866-2016) of the restoration to public veneration of the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help offers the occasion to reflect upon the theological aspect of the Marian “wood panel” that Pope Pius IX entrusted to the Redemptorist missionaries so they could spread its veneration.

This choice, made among the countless possibilities for icon interpretation[2], affords a reflection that cannot but fail to consider the constitutive symbiosis between art and faith, between image and theology. This, indeed, is principally what the icon calls into question.

This perspective guides the reflection and the development of this contribution. On the basis of scientific research and similar approaches to icon reading[3], the following pages are intended to “unveil” the figure of Mary from the “panel” and to trace some possible lines of reflection and theological study in the iconography that characterizes the icon and makes it unique.

  1. Looking for a “method of interpretation”

Humanity has always tried to understand the reality surrounding it. Over the centuries, this need has led persons to ‘catch’ the image of the visible or invisible world and ‘carve’ it in stone, or paint it on any surface for the sole purpose of being able to “de-pict” and interpret it . This journey of humanity, which has expressed emotions and feelings throughout space and nature, is now illustrated in large volumes of art history; in monumental manuals of architecture, sculpture and painting[4].

In looking at this work of art, however, some people face a certain embarrassment. Sometimes this situation is due to a personal inability to “see-understand-know” the communicative specificity of an “artistic object”. At other times, the language of scholars is insufficient to describe the work of art – a lack that touches specifically holy art, religious art, Christian art – which expresses and manifests itself through an artistic form, the depth and richness of the message of salvation, for the observer[5].

These “uncertainties” and “impressions” are often generated by the choice of an inappropriate method of interpretation, unable to overcome the level of sheer given material, the level of form, to capture in figurative expressions, lines, colors and light, the depth of the theological message.

This inseparable relationship between the composition part (the work of art with its elements) and the richness of content (the theological elaboration of faith), is clearly stated in the Second Council of Nicaea (787). It was a special moment in the life of the Church, which was remembered much more «for the condemnation of  iconoclasm than for speculative teaching that exalts the “perception of the icons” and proposes their hermeneutics»[6]. The doctrine defined by this Council, « concerning the lawfulness of the veneration of icons also merits special attention, not only for the wealth of its spiritual implications, but also for the demands that it imposes on the whole of sacred art»[7].

The reading of the canons of Nicaea II acknowledged «that the figurative expressions rightfully belong to the Creed and the piety of the faithful. They are in fact the essential “part”  of the whole (which is the patrimony of faith), transmitted to the Church and became tradition»[8]. In other words, art and theology influence each other[9]: « the “vision” (eye) and the “word” (or ear) are presented as two jointed and homologous paths, which nevertheless fulfill the same cognitive function of the “reading of the Gospel” and “contemplation of painting”»[10]. Both the artist «who writes with line and color»[11] and the theologian « who speaks in words, make an act of “symbolic transgression”: […] crossing the threshold between the finite and the infinite without violating it »[12].

Reading correctly the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual means, then, taking an interpretive method capable of grasping the pre-iconography (i.e., in the figurative elements) the logos and the iconography, (i.e., the theological message)[13]. It is a method able to see «in the form of fragment the intensity of the Whole»[14].

  1. A passage towards the invisible

From the Christian East and the Orthodox tradition we learn to conceive the icon (from the Greek eikon) as a “passage towards the invisible”[15]. It is a tangible reality that is able to lead us to look beyond the sensible, to the transcendent. As foundation to the theology of the icon, there is the mystery of the Incarnate Word, the image of the Father in the Holy Spirit (cf. Col 1,15-20; Heb 1,1-4; Rom 8,28-30)[16]. «In him are gathered the mystery of God who made man in his image and likeness (cf. Gen 1,26), and the mystery of man in whom God wished to bring out the aspects»[17].

When [the icon] is Christ or a saint or biblical scene, it is not meant to be a portrait of an ordinary person nor merely depict a historical or natural scene: it wishes to be the “revelation of eternity in time”, it suggests the vocation of the human person to deification, expressing “the spiritual experience of holiness”. It lets shine, the grace that absorbs nature; it does not seek to represent the divinity, but the human participation in the divine, giving an image of the divine beauty. It is a return to invisible reality that pierces the visible[18].

The icon, after all, wants to bring to the contemplation of the eyes what the Word offers to the ears[19]. It, then, does not reflect the individual vision of an artist, but the teaching of the Church which, with its theological and aesthetic canons, inspires the iconographer’s gaze and certifies the truth and authenticity of his handiwork[20].

This theological-spiritual horizon is captured in the essential difference «between the icon, which we have just described, and the picture, that is conceived and practiced in Christian western art»[21]. According to some scholars, the latter does not reach the theological truth of the icon because of the commitment to the visible[22]. While the artist’s point of view in the Western world can be the very varied and is oriented from the cultural environment in which it operates (the Byzantine world, Romanesque, Gothic, Humanism, Renaissance …), the iconographer’s point of view is always the mystery caught, now in one, now in the other of its aspects[23]. «All images-icons refer, therefore, to Christ as the “prototype”, the original image to which all must conform. His face, his person, in the richness of the various mysteries of life, are at the center of the iconography»[24].

The icon, then, is a “sacrament” of Christ and the same way as in the sacraments, it makes present its mystery, in the present moment. For this reason, the privileged place for understanding the theological richness of the icon is the liturgical environment. «Only within the liturgy, can you grasp the meaning of the icon in the spiritual life and the extension of its presence in other moments of the Christian experience, like catechesis and personal prayer»[25]. In this horizon of theological knowledge, the contemplative path precedes the speculative one. The way of beauty – via pulchritudinis – reveals the icon’s doctrinal message[26].

3. The Unicum in the meeting of different iconographic types.

The Mother of Jesus is ‘artistically’ represented in a large and expressive variety of forms. In Redemptoris Mater, Pope John Paul II, reminds and brings to the attention of the “Church in action” the most classic of these:

‘In them Mary is represented in a number of ways: as the throne of God carrying the Lord and giving him to humanity (Theotokos); as the way that leads to Christ and manifests him (Hodegetria); as a praying figure in an attitude of intercession and as a sign of the divine presence on the journey of the faithful until the day of the Lord (Deesis); as the protectress who stretches out her mantle over the peoples (Pokrov), or as the merciful Virgin of tenderness (Eleousa). She is usually represented with her Son, the child Jesus, in her arms: it is the relationship with the Son which glorifies the Mother. Sometimes she embraces him with tenderness (Glykophilousa); at other times she is a hieratic figure, apparently rapt in contemplation of him who is the Lord of history (cf. Rev. 5:9-14).It is also appropriate to mention the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, which continually accompanied the pilgrimage of faith of the peoples of ancient Rus’. [27].

In the Byzantine environment, icons of the Virgin are numerous. This variety causes many to believe, as unthinkable, a typological classification of Marian icons. However, it is possible to glimpse a common matrix inside the variety, that, in some way, can help us sift and enumerate the incredible set of Marian icons in just a few types[28].

This option allows an “iconographic qualification” of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Through a comparative study it is, in fact, plausible to place our icon in the Hodegetria type.

«The Virgin of the Hodegetria type, “The one who shows the way – writes the theologian Paul Evdokimov – represents the Christological dogma and shows her Son, who is the way. On the left arm she bears the child who blesses, and with the right one points to the Savior”»[29].

From this description, and thanks to a visual comparison between the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help and the Hodegetria icon, a substantial difference emerges instantly. In the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, it is not so much the arm to support Jesus, but the left hand that is willing to accept in her palm – the Son of God. The Virgin’s right hand, as well as indicating the Redeemer, as happens in the Hodegetria, is presented as supporting his hands too. The child, in this case, does not assume a blessing and straight position, but almost curls up on the mother’s chest.

The position of the child and that of the Virgin’s right-hand points to a second typological influence in the icon of Perpetual Help, the Eleousa, or Virgin of tenderness.

In this second iconography, the maternal side of the Mother is accentuated, above all. She is seen as holding her Son close to herself and slightly reclining her head towards him. In the end, the instruments of the passion, placed in the hands of angels flanking the central figure, cause many to classify this panel as among those representing the “Virgin of the Passion”[30].

The confluence of different iconographic types in the “writing” of the same icon is not something new. The icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, as the above panel makes evident, is indeed «commonly regarded as the Eleousa type, that is, of tenderness. But it actually combines this with the more classic Hodegetria»[31]. What makes the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help unique and therefore recognizable are the details, small compositional variations that, of course, are the stylistic result of the encounter of different iconographic types. But they are also artistic concretizations of a theological message that is able to offer even in fragments, in the smallest details (the hands, the face, the glance) which are called to transform a different Reality.

4. The Hands of the Mother of Jesus

At this point, it is possible to try and further enter the mystery, to bring out from the color transparencies, from the shadows and traits of this writing, the profound message – or part of it – that the icon bears.

The economy of the contribution directs the focus on just one aspect among those available. The “detail” on which rests the “iconological” analysis – is represented by the focal point of the “panel”: the meeting of hands – those of Mary and those of the “young” Jesus. The hands, in icons «are an expression of a relationship, for example, the gesture of adlocutio, the so-called speaking hand, [which is often found in the image of Christ Pantocrator], replaces the words of persons, who are always portrayed in silence, with closed lips»[32].

As has already been highlighted, in our icon, the Virgin’s right hand performs two actions simultaneously. Thus, she accommodates the smaller hands of the child who turns his gaze outside the material scope of the “panel”. At the same time, the same hand points to the very Christ as the one to whom all are called to turn to, to “re-find” the way, the path to holiness. In this second gesture, the act of Hodegetria is recognized. However, the same gesture «is typical of the images where the Virgin pleads before Christ the Judge. Therefore it also has the meaning of interceding»[33].

From observing the icon, the “ecclesial task” of Mary emerges. She is the one who shows the path, the one who presents Christ as the only way of salvation to humanity. But she is also the one who accompanies us with her maternal protection, on our journey and intercedes, in the Son, with the Father[34].

This bond between the “mission” of the Mother and that of the Son is strengthened (cf. SC, n. 103) , in the icon, by two elements. The first is represented by the left hand of Mary, Mother of Christ and of the Church (cf. LG, n. 53)[35], which “welcomes” the Child as in a womb. At the same time, she “hands” him to us all as the Way, Truth and Life (cf. John 14,6). The second element is constituted by the color of the garment of Jesus reflecting, with the same hue, the inner side of the mantle of Mary. Such chromatic harmony is to indicate the intimate relationship between the Mother and the Son[36]. A Union that «is manifest from the time of Christ’s virginal conception up to his death»[37] and that «in the economy of grace continues uninterruptedly»[38] and does not obscure or diminish the unique mediation of Christ[39].

The theological ideas that emerged from here are somehow confirmed by “lines of force” that animate the iconographic composition. The first line is drawn from the right arm of Mary that, diagonally, crosses the “panel” and leads the viewer’s eye first to the meeting of the hands, and later on – to the Child. Again, the role of Mary as mediator is acclaimed as one «whose greatness is due to the fact that she was chosen as the Mother of Jesus»[40]. The second line of force is the one marked by the bust of Christ. Even this movement follows a compositive diagonal of the icon and tends to lead the gaze now on Mary’s left hand, now on the face of the Child, now on the Mother’s face – another focal point of the icon – that tenderly invites everyone to welcome the Son.

The whole composition, the movements of the gaze that are guided from power lines, the re-called chromatic harmonies, everything seems to suggest what Paul VI says of Mary in  Mense maio: she « is rightly to be regarded as the way by which we are led to Christ, the person who encounters Mary cannot help but encounter Christ likewise»[41]. So there is a “movement of grace” that from the Son comes to us through Mary. And she, in a perpetual way, stands next to the depth of being of the person and helps him in the path of return to the Father in Christ. Thus writes Paul VI « For what other reason do we continually turn to Mary except to seek the Christ in her arms, to seek our Savior in her, through her, and with her? To Him, are we called to turn amid the anxieties and perils of this world, urged on by duty and driven by the compelling needs of the heart, to find a haven of salvation, a transcendent fountain of life»[42].


While contemplating the icon, we have tried to bring out the theological traits – just some of them – of a Mariology that is offered through the “narrative” of the image. Art, in its own manner, is «a way to the inmost reality of humanity and of the world. As such, it is a valid approach to the faith, which gives human experience its unfinished interpretation»[43]. The icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, by its nature, opens a passage toward the invisible visible and makes viable the encounter with God and with ourselves. From the “panel”, Mary holds out the Mystery of Christ to humanity, the only Way that makes the same people, able to contemplate the fullness of their vocation (cf. GS, n. 12. 22), the depth of one’s being in the image of the Father in Christ (cf. Gen 1), of being an icon of the Creator (cf. Col 3,10).


The Jubilee anniversary (1866-2016) of the restoration for public veneration of Our Mother of Perpetual Succour Icon offers the possibility to reflect upon the theological aspect of our Marian “panel”.

This essay, without losing sight of the objective, aims to “uncover” some possible lines of reflection and theological study from the iconography that characterizes the icon and makes it unique.

Once the method of investigation is defined and the significance of artistic and theological aspects is validated, the speculative attention focuses on a specific detail of the “panel”: the hands reaching together; which is considered the focal point of the “icon” of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

Fr. Antonio Donato[1] (Province Of Naples)

Translated from Italian by V. De Felice and V. Villani

[1] Il presente articolo è già pubblicato in lingua italiana in SHCSR 64 (2016) 103-116. L’adattamento in lingua inglese è stato curato da V. De Felice e V. Villani.

[2] E. Bresciani, Cenni storici sull’antica e prodigiosa imagine della Madonna del Perpetuo Soccorso già venerata in S. Matteo in Merulana e ridonata al culto publico nella chiesa di S. Alfonso sull’Esquilino, Tipografia della S. C. De propaganda fide, Roma 1866; F. Ferrero, Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro. Proceso histórico de una devoción mariana, Editorial el Perpetuo Socorro, Madrid 1966; Missionari Redentoristi, La Madonna del Perpetuo Soccorso. L’immagine, le grazie, le chiese, M. Pisani, Isola del Liri 1998; A. Marrazzo, L’ultimo restauro dell’icona della Madonna del Perpetuo Soccorso, in SHCSR 64 (2016) 307-349.

[3] S. Dianich – T. Verdon, «Vedere Cristo. La trinità di Masaccio tra arte e teologia», in Il Regno 49/8 (2004) 251-256; D. Del Gaudio, «L’iconografia Mariana in Giotto di Bordone. La reciprocità fra umano e divino», in Theotokos 19 (2011) 489-515; S. Dianich – T. Verdon, «La Trinità di Masaccio. Arte e teologia», in Vivens Homo 15/1 (2004) 5-14.

[4] Among the monumental works of “art history” we mention, as a representative example, the “Vite de’ più eccellenti architetti pittori e scultori italiani da Cimabue insino a’ tempi nostri”  (1550) by Giorgio Vasari (Arezzo 1511 – Florence 1574), painter, architect and Italian historian.

[5] Cf E. Marino, «Arte e fede. Come si ‘forma’ e ‘interpreta’ l’opera d’arte ispirata dal Vangelo e dalla Tradizione ecclesiale», in Rivista di Ascetica e Mistica, 32/2 (2007) 401-412.

[6] Ivi, 405.

[7] John Paul II, Duodecimum saeculum, on the Occasion of the 1200th Anniversary of the Second Council of Nicaea (4.12.1987) No.1. «The decisive argument to which the Bishops appealed in order to settle the controversy was the mystery of the Incarnation: if the Son of God entered the world of visible realities, bridging his humanity between the visible and the invisible, we may think that a representation of the Mystery could be used, within the logic of sign, as a sensory evocation of the mystery. The icon is venerated not for its own sake, but points beyond to the subject that represents» (cf. E. Scognamiglio, «La via della bellezza tra storia, arte e teologia», in Asprenas 59 (2012) 53).

[8] E. Marino, «Arte e fede. Come si ‘forma’ e ‘interpreta’ l’opera d’arte»…, 405.

[9] Cf B. Forte, «Grafica d’Arte e teologia cristiana», in Asprenas 49/2 (2002) 227.

[10] E. Marino, «Arte e fede. Come si ‘forma’ e ‘interpreta’ l’opera d’arte»…, 406.

[11] B. Forte, «Grafica d’Arte e teologia cristiana»…, 227. «The Council of Constantinople IV in 870, confirming the condemnation of iconoclasm by Nicaea II (787), states that “for the things which are the sermon in syllables, these things also the writing which is in colors”  (cf. DS 654). Striking in this text, is the joining of what looks like a paradox between “the spell of the logos” and “writing in color”: this union does not surprise those who know how in the Eastern tradition, the iconographer – as the name implies – is not the one who paints but one who, “writes” the icon. And he writes precisely using lines and colors» (cf. ivi, 226).

[12] B. Forte, «Grafica d’Arte e teologia cristiana»…, 227.

[13] Cf E. Marino, «Arte e fede. Come si ‘forma’ e ‘interpreta’ l’opera d’arte»…, 405. Starting from the Modern Age, and especially with the Enlightenment, historians and art critics tend to absolutize «the analysis of just artistic motifs; the constituency, the composition and the lights (to quote Leon Battista Alberti), which is nothing if not a part (the pre-iconographical) of the entire work of art. In the “formal patterns”, the narrative (or “iconography”) is shown in the beauty and connotes a particular culture or logos (or “iconology”)» (cf. ivi, 404).

[14] B. Forte, «Grafica d’Arte e teologia cristiana»…, 232.

[15] Cf Dimitrios I°, «Il concilio di Nicea e la teologia delle icone. Lettera enciclica del patriarca di Costantinopoli», in Il Regno – documenti 33/5 (1988) 152-156.

[16] Cf J. Castellano, «Icona», in Pontificio Istituto di Spiritualità del Teresianum – E. Ancilli (edd.), Dizionario Enciclopedico di Spiritualità, vol. II, Città Nuova, Roma 1992, 1241.

[17] Ivi. «The Ecumenical Council of Nicaea II, reaffirming the doctrine of the Fathers and in a special manner that of Saint John of Damascus, and while listening to the sense of God’s people, has highlighted some principles that are the basis of the theology of the icon. The sacramental basis of the icon is the incarnation of the Son of God who allows and encourages the representation of images and the episodes of his life. The Golden Rule is the icon’s identity with the person it represents. The sense of reverence is the reference to the one who is represented, God in himself, in his works and in his creatures. The guarantor of truth and authenticity of the iconographic art is the Church with its rules or canons for painting images» (cf. ivi).

[18] J. Moingt, «Immagini, icone e idoli di Dio. La questione di verità nella teologia cristiana», in Concilium 1/37 (2001) 174-175.

[19] Cf J. Castellano, «Icona»…, 1241. « … the Greek and Slav Churches, … considered the veneration of icons as an integral part of the liturgy, like the celebration of the Word. Just as the reading of material books allows the hearing of the living word of the Lord, so also the showing of the painted icon allows those who contemplate it to accede to the mystery of salvation by the sense of sight, “What on the one hand is represented by ink and paper is represented on the other hand in the icon, thanks to the various colors and other materials.” (35)”» (cf. Duodecimum saeculum, 10).

[20] Cf ivi, 174.

[21] Ivi, 175.

[22] Cf ivi.

[23] Cf E. Scognamiglio, «La via della bellezza»…, 53-61; E. Marino, «Arte e fede. Come si ‘forma’ e ‘interpreta’ l’opera d’arte»…, 406-412.

[24] J. Castellano, «Icona»…, 1242.

[25] Ivi.

[26] D. Del Gaudio, «L’iconografia Mariana in Giotto di Bordone»…, 489-515; B. Forte, La porta della bellezza. Per un’estetica teologica, Morcelliana, Brescia 2002, 71-83.

[27] John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, Encyclical Letter On the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of the Pilgrim Church (25.03.1987), 33; Cf. J. Castellano, «Icona»…, 1442.

[28] Cf G. Passarelli, Iconostati. La teologia della bellezza e della luce, Mondadori, Milano 2003, 54-56.

[29] Ivi, 55.

[30] Cf Missionari Redentoristi, La Madonna del Perpetuo Soccorso. L’immagine…, 17-22.

[31] G. Passarelli, Iconostati…, 55.

[32] G. Busi – G. Raffa, Luce del tuo volto. Icone: percorsi avanzati fra teoria e pratica, Dehoniana Libri, Bologna 2014, 204.

[33] G. Passarelli, Iconostati…, 60.

[34] «The call to salvation in Christ, bridal gift of grace in Christ deifies us, an adoption that for the action of the Holy Spirit makes us “sons in the Son” of the Father, are realities that are inserted into human life through the mystery of the Saviour, the realization of which Mary, for God’s eternal plan, worked as a “entirely unique generous companion” (LG, n. 61)» (cf A. Macca, «Maria Santissima», in Pontificio Istituto di Spiritualità del Teresianum – E. Ancilli [edd.], Dizionario Enciclopedico di Spiritualità…, 1498).

[35] Cf Paolo VI, Discorso ai Padri Conciliari alla conclusione della terza Sessione del Concilio Ecumenico II (21 novembre 1964), AAS 56 (1964) 1015; CCC, nn. 963-975.

[36] In the essay by Del Gaudio above, is shown the iconographic analysis of a medieval work with the Byzantine influences of Giotto di Bondone – The Ognissanti Madonna (around 1310) – in which the researcher identifies with the colors of the clothes and hand positions the distinguishing marks of the union between Mother and Son; cf D. Del Gaudio, «L’iconografia Mariana in Giotto di Bordone»…, 509-511.

[37] LG, n. 57.

[38] Ivi, n. 62.

[39] Redemptorist Mater N. 38. «”The maternal role of Mary towards people in no way obscures or diminishes the unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power”: it is mediation in Christ. The Church knows and teaches that “all the saving influences of the Blessed Virgin on mankind originate…from the divine pleasure. They flow forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rest on his mediation, depend entirely on it, and draw all their power from it. In no way do they impede the immediate union of the faithful with Christ. Rather, they foster this union.” » (cf. LG, n. 60). For in-depth, see Redemptoris Mater, nn. 38-42.

[40] D. Del Gaudio, «L’iconografia Mariana in Giotto di Bordone»…, 510.

[41] Paul VI, Manse Maio, Encyclical of Pope Paul VI – On Prayers during May for Preservation of Peace – April 29, 1965. No. 2

[42] Ivi.

[43] E. Scognamiglio, «La via della bellezza»…, 61.