The Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Father Thévenon had been interested very early in the icon of Our Lady of the Passion (of the Perpetual Help), struck both by its theological content as well as by the fact that it is one of the few icons honored for the same reason by both catholics and orthodox, knowing the attachment to this form of sacred art. He saw there a connection whose deep sense was the very message of the icon : The Passion of Our Lord. A message which he considered extremely modern in that it summarizes all the work of Christ in a kind of catechism adapted to modern sensitivities and expectations of our time.
He asked his friends to study this icon and to realize a pictorial representation. It is the result of this work which is presented here.
The STRASTAÏAS or Virgins of Pain, have appeared since the XIIth century in Byzantine painting. Some writers think that they may even be older (1). They increased in number in the XIVth and the XVth centuries. According to Egon SENDLER (2), in the XVth century, a Cretan iconographist Andrea RICCO (or RITZOS), created the prototype of a particular Virgin of Pain, called “Our Lady of the Passion" or “Our Lady of Perpetual Help" or in Russia “Strastaïa", “Our Lady of the Presentiment of the Passion”, “Our Lady of the Redeeming Incarnation” and “Terrifying Vision”.
A universal and traditional icon
All agree on the fact that it arrived in Rome coming from Crete. But was this the original or a copy or a model, a basic drawing of the icon, transferred between iconographists and which entered collections, the "hermeneia" useful for the continuation of the painting ? The legend certainly colored history but the fact is that the icon of Our Lady of the Passion was found in Rome on the 17 March 1499 in the Eglise Church of Saint Matthew (between Sainte Marie Majeure and Saint Jean of Latran) and that many miracles were confirmed throughout the XVIth, XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries. The important fact is that it appeared in the West at the dawn of modern times. The Augustines saved it from the Napoleonic fury. It was then later recovered by the Rédemptoristes who propagated it extensively through out the world. It is celebrated in France on the 27 June and by the orthodox on the 13 August.
In the East, it not widely known but sufficiently however that one of its most beautiful interpretations appears in the Athens museum. It was painted in Russia at Nijni Novgorod. A miracle occurred in this town to a woman from a neighboring village. It was then moved to the village church, and then, on the orders of the Tsar, Alexei Mikhailovitch, to Moscow where a church was built in its honor and in 1654, a convent called Strastnoï. It would then become famous in this country among the other icons of The Virgin which the Russians venerate.
The Virgin belongs to the family of icons called "Odigitria", in other words ‘which show the way', where she carries the child in her arms and presents him with her free hand, ‘who is the way, the truth and the life'.
The infant Jesus, holds in his two hands the right hand of his mother, and then turns around to contemplate the vision of the Cross. The Cross is presented to him by the archangel Gabriel, at the level of the face of Mary and on her left. On her right, at the same level, is the Archangel Michael, who presents to the Lord, the lance and the sponge soaked in vinegar, at the end of a reed. Sometimes, Saint Michael in addition presents the crown of thorns and Saint Gabriel the nails. The tradition says that Jesus, turns around quickly at the sight of the instruments of His future Passion and that in this movement of great emotion, his sandal falls off. This scene is sometimes written in Slavonic or in Latin, at the height of Jesus' face, under the Archangel Gabriel. In fact it is obviously inspired by the contemplation of the Holy Shroud, where the right foot covered with blood has left a darker mark associated with a sinuous blood loss. Did the artist naively consider that it involved the mark of a sandal and its lace, or did the artist have a clear vision of the thing he wanted to represent in a sort of mystical iconographic transcription ? In addition, is it the icon of the Strastaïa itself, or did he receive this teaching of old or from the common traditions of iconography ? At least one other icon represents the sandal of Christ (a Virgin of Tenderness in a private museum in Kölliken in Switzerland). To be able to identify the oldest, one can think that the Cretan iconographist could contemplate personally the Holy Shroud, which entered into its modern period at the end of the XVth century (in 1502 Pope Jules II fixed its celebration as the 4 May).
It is now established that the Holy Shroud inspired the Eastern iconography (3). The first icons were undoubtedly directly inspired by the Shroud and there is in this respect a natural and authentic relationship of this icon of later creation to the older icons. It respects in other aspects the traditional canons : The Virgin is clothed in a robe generally blue and adorned with a canonical dress of "maphorion" of a "purple" spreading from red ocher to red cherry, passing the browns or the bordeaux (wine color). The forehead and shoulders are marked with a star. The child is clothed with a white robe. He wears a large belt whose color varies. He is generally covered also with a pallium of variable color (gold or red). Two or three locks of hair are visible on his forehead, another sign originating from the Shroud.
Repainted in Italy by the "madonneri", the painters of holy pictures, these painters barely adhered to the eastern canons, with which they were not familiar, and their Italian fantasy did not push them to explore. This is how Our Lady of Passion came to be widely diffused in Europe in the form of reproductions with a red robe, a dark or black blue maphorion and the Infant Jesus clothed in green. The Father of Foucault painted it and, like Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, invokes it explicitly. Note that on this occasion the painting of icons, so typical of the eastern religious art is also in Western history. The ‘icons of the crusaders' as it is common to call them today, represent 8% of the icons of the Saint Catherine monastery on Mount Sinai, all painted by westerners (English, French, Italian) in the XIIth and XIIIth centuries (4).
The symbolism of the icon
The origin of the icons goes back to before Christianity, but whatever the source, tradition tells us that Saint Luc painted the first icon of the Virgin. It was a “odigitria” (which shows the way). Some very old texts confirm it and make it possible to not loose sight of it from the VIth century to its possible destruction by the Turks in the XVth century. However, an old tradition sees in the icon known as "Salus Populi Romani" of Sainte Marie Majeure the icon painted by Saint Luke.
Specialists date it from the IXth century, but it was copied through out the world (in Europe, Russia, Ethiopia, China) and was distributed by the Jesuits who published holy reproductions of it. Rome regarded it as its palladium (5). Its influence on iconography of the Virgin Mary is certain and it shares with Our Lady of the Passion its universality.
On the oldest icons of Our Lady of the Passion, the Christ is clothed in a white tunic, the "chiton" which should be traditionally decorated with the "clavi augusti", a golden decorative band going down from the shoulder, an ancient mark of the monarch as evoked by Isaiah (9/5) "the badge of His power is on His shoulder" . But the clavus usually carried on both shoulders is only normally visible on the right shoulder. On this icon, as on many others, to represent it on the left shoulder is a good compromise to which all iconographists did not adhere. The white is a fulgurating symbol of aggressive radiance like white hot iron and is connected with the red. The paradox is that metal submitted to the proof of fire symbolizes, constantly in the Bible, the purification passed through by all reds from the most somber to the sharpest before becoming vivid white. In this regard, one better understands that the Saints of the Apocalypse are dressed in robes bleached in the blood of the lamb. "These are those who come from the great tribulation, they have washed their robes and have bleached them in the blood of the lamb" (Apo 7/14). This aspect is sometimes accentuated by gold traces. During the transfiguration, the Christ is described as clothed in white "His raiment was white and glistening" (Luke 9/29), whereas Moses and Elias, as the angels of the icon, spoke to him about "His decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem (Luke 9/31)
He carries a large red belt, or rather two red belts superimposed because it is written (Is 11/5), ‘the justice will be the belt of his flanks and the fidelity will be the belt of his reins'. One of these belts can be of gold because (it) ‘girded to the height of the breast, with a belt of gold' (Apo 1/13). Thus girded it was not there for a very long time. The belt symbolizes the total control of the loins, seat of the feelings and the physical vigor. The Passion of the Christ is a total love for His Church. This Passion made Him suppress other human passions until the ultimate sacrifice. "Let your loins be girded about and your lights burning" (Luke 12/35).
He is finally clothed in the pallium (6), with the tunic over it and draped twice diagonally. The pallium is gold or red because the Christ of the Passion was covered in derision in red, symbol of royalty which he claimed. The red is the active incandescence as given by the master iconographist Denys l'Aréopagite, it is also the color of blood. Red accentuates the evocation of the Passion of the Christ who spilt His blood for his friends but also who crushed his enemies "Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat ? I have trodden the wine press alone and of the people there was none with me : for I will tread them in my fury ; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments and I will stain all my raiment'. (Isaiah 63/2,3). Gold is the color of the sun but also the precious and rare metal the most symbolic of the sun. Therefore, gilding must be made with the leaf and not painted, metal and color being associated. The Christ, indeed, is the ‘Rising Sun, the splendor of eternal light and the sun of justice'. For this reason the halo is also treated by leaf. The drape is emphasized with orange or red color in order to respect the harmony.
The Virgin is clothed in blue, which entirely covers her to the wrists and the neck. The blue color is the symbol of the infinite and immaterial depth of the Spirit. By her ‘Fiat' she has been immediately flooded by the virtues of the Holy Spirit "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the highest will overshadow thee" (Luke 1/35). She carries on her head, a blue veil which envelopes her hair and is probably tied behind the nape. A gold stripe emphasizes the start of the neck, two parallel gold stripes encircle the waist. We saw above the direction of the color and of the gold metal. It is here associated with the number 2 and the right hand which points to the Christ ‘Who is the way'. The number 2 evokes the dualism, the combat between good and evil. Eve, seduced by the devil, had picked with her right hand the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil which she offered to Adam, involving humanity in the fall. Mary, perfect image of the Church, the new Eve, presents Jesus the fruit of the real and unique knowledge "I am the truth", fruit of the tree of life "I am the life", who descends victorious from the Cross. The dualism then dies out in the redemption, in the recovered and accomplished truth and in the eternal life. Man rediscovers his creator, the spirit informs the matter in the divine order. In the refound Paradise, the number 2 means the meeting of what was formerly divided and from now on is finally united.
The Virgin is then clothed in the “maphorion”, a kind of full shawl which covers the head, the shoulders and the body. The maphorion is crimson. In fact this crimson is more orcher in color. It symbolizes the penitence of the Virgin by the love for her Son, through the Immaculate Conception, she was the only human who did not know sin. The ocher nuance of the maphorion achieved by natural earths is close to the color of the garment of the humble, adding poverty to the evocation of the penitence. The maphorion is marked by three canonical stars in the Virgin's icons. In the beginning the Virgin was represented by a cross on the forehead (Salus Populi Romani, Sainte Marie Majeure, VIth century for example). The cross was thus carried by the Syrian Christians at first, because it is known as "Wait to abuse the ground and the sea and the trees, which we marked with the servants of our God" (Apocalypse 7/3). The star is in fact a distortion of the cross with rays and gold points. But the fact that it is no longer on some icons only a ‘X' is a corruption. Why does the frontal cross come with two shoulder crosses ? The trinity is certain but this symbolism is always used in the Bible in precise contexts and it is right to find them. The explanation is given to us in the book of Exodus (12/21,28) when the Hebrews are warned they should mark their houses to escape the exterminating angle ‘"hen you will take a bouquet of hyssop and soak it in blood, and apply this blood to the lintel and the two stiles of the door". The Virgin ‘"Janua caeli" (porte du ciel) as the litanies proclaim it, perfect image of the Church, is marked on the forehead and on the shoulders. It is only in the Church that one enjoys true protection. When the crosses recall the sacrifice of the real lamb, who by His spilt blood, obtains for us safety.
We saw previously the symbolism of the halo. The Christ has ‘the face as the sun' (Apocalypse 10/1), besides is he not himself the ‘Sun of Justice' (Antiennes "Great O" vespers of the advent). It is the sense of the halos or nimbuses used regularly since Christian antiquity in all the representations of Jesus, of His Mother and of the Saints. The apocalypse says of the Church (and by consequence of Mary and of the Saints) "The sun envelopes it" (12/1). But to mark the origin of the light, the iconographist fixes as an intangible rule that the halo of the Christ is above that of all.
Finally, the archangel who, behind Jesus and to the left of the Virgin, presents the cross to the child is Gabriel. Some icons carry his name written in Slavonic in its traditional abbreviation : . It is necessary to see indeed in this icon the crucial episode, in the true sense of the term, of the annunciation. Gabriel announces to Mary her new motherhood, but reveals also the mystery of the incarnation. It is in this same idea that some icons carry to the right of the Virgin, under the second archangel (Saint Michael), the reference HAMOΛVNTOC, of the Greek AMOΛVNTOΣ, the immaculate.
Does Saint Michael carry the spear , ‘military instrument' of the Passion, as he must because he is the chief of the celestial militias, author of the battle cry "Who is like God ? " who is worthy of his name and patron of the Christian warriors, to which he recalls that Jesus is the true chief of war who has been pierced at the end of his victorious struggle.
Like the Roman centurion, the soldiers will understand.
The canonical inscriptions common to all the icons of the Virgin and Child are reproduced on this one of course.
It involves for Jesus Christ at the level of the face of Jesus, under the archangel, of , abbreviation of "the one that is", in the halo of the Christ and of abbreviation of Mother of God, to the right and to the left of the Virgin in the upper corners of the icon. These abbreviations derive from the Slavonic and the Greek.
A summary of God's Plan
More certainly than any other, the icon of the Passion perfectly summaries the "The Economy of Safety" as referred to by theologians, or more simply, the Mystery of the Plan of God. From the Incarnation to the Glorious resurrection, passing the death on the cross, evoking the church in the person of the Virgin and her saving role of Fœderis Arca, the dogma of the Trinity or that of the immaculate conception, it is the icon of Christmas, of Easter, of the Pentecost or of the transfiguration. It is the icon of the people of God walking towards the celestial city, in these times of distress where the terrible vision is offered increasingly more precise comes with the indefectible hope in the victory of the Lord, carried by the infinite love that he gives and invites to return to Him.
- Gordana Banbié and Manolis Chatzidakis.
- Jesuit specialist in icons and himself an iconographist. Author of various works on the subject.
- D Raffard de Brienne – The Holy Shroud says Truth 1992
- Kurt Weissmann, The Icon, Arnoldo Montadori publications, Milan 1981.
- Sacred object pledge of the safeguard of a city, of a nation.
- Latin word meaning coat. It refers to the Roman pallium that later gave birth to the liturgical pallium, which is a woven strip of white wool worn over it as a necklace, the vestment of the Pope, the Patriarchs, the Primates, and the Archbishops. This pallium is decorated with six crosses made of black taffeta, on the circle (red until XIIIth century) and two on the short strips that hang one on the back the other on the chest. These badges are prepared with wool of a white sheep blessed by the Saint Père on Sainte Agnès day. (Glossary, Zodiac Collection 1965)