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Our Lady of Perpetual Help (The Virgin of the Passion - feast day 27 June)
“It is said that Our Lady of Perpetual Help never refuses a request, no matter how small or frivolous it may seem. Many who have felt unworthy to call on her report hearing a calm voice saying, ‘Why don’t you just ask ?’”
“In the immense cathedral which is the universe of God, each person, whether scholar or manual laborer, is called to act as the priest of his (her) whole life ... to take all that is human, and to turn it into an offering and a hymn of glory.”
“The icon is the last arrow of Human Eros shot at the heart of mystery.”
Paul Evdokimov (2 August 1901 -16 September 1970)
In the pre-Vatican II Catholic world in the United States, the only icon familiar to most of us was Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Statues (or versions of holy figures) the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, St Joseph with the Holy Child, or Joseph the Worker, and the particular patron saint of a church, standing behind glowing red or blue vigil light stands, were in every church. I loved statues and had a collection - beginning with a St Francis, my parents brought me from San Francisco. By the age of 13 I had a collection of about 80. And most people had lovely/lushly illustrated colored holy card art leafed between pages of their missals. These prayer books had the Latin on one side and the English translations on the other. But most of all I was entranced by the artistically beautiful black and white illustrations in the missal. They were drawn by master draughtsmen - usually from Europe but some from the US.
(This icon was commissioned by my dear friend, Nicola (Nicki) Maddox and will one day, be given to the Church of her choice.)
My parents were married on 27 June 1942, so Our Lady of Perpetual Help was always somewhere in the back of my mind. I promised her I’d write/paint her icon in 2005, and finally completed that promise on May 18. I began the drawing in early November 2020. Because the panel I used for the icon is 25” x 44” I realized I’d have to extend her gown (maphorion) to fit the length of the panel. It was then I remembered an extended drawing in black and white I’d seen in an old missal. So that became my model. The original icon is Greek and called The Virgin of the Passion. It shows Our Mother looking seriously (icons are usually solemn and that’s one reason some people prefer paintings or illustrated holy card art, I know I did until I seriously studied iconography ) and longingly into our eyes while holding her Child. He has just jumped into her arms so one sandal is dangling off his foot. The Archangels Michael and Gabriel are brining the instruments of the Passion for him to see...the lance, the sponge, the Cross, some versions included the Crown of Thorns. My teacher Friar Robert Lentz, OFM did an absolutely brilliant version of this icon placing Holy New Martyr St Oscar Romero in the place of the Mother of God and helicopters act as the instruments of the Passion, replacing the Archangels. Robert is so creatively inspired and often has a very unique way of finding a saint that no one had yet been asked to portray. This icon preceded St Oscar’s canonization. He has the ability of Daniel Berrigan, SJ to cause you to rethink a gospel parable or the iconography of a new saint. Daniel collaborated on a book with me called “The Bride: Images of the Church”, from 2000. I chose the title because one of Dan’s first books was “The Bride: Essays in the Church” from 1959.
During the writing of this icon I ordered a book on Our Lady of Perpetual Help, called “The Story of An Icon” by Fr Fabriciano Ferraro, C.S.s.R. I was amazed at how many versions were created of this icon. My preference is the icon in the church of St Alphonsus in Rome, “... The results of the carbon 14 dating analysis put the wood of the icon between the 14th and 15th centuries (1325 -1480). On the other hand the artistic analysis tended to put the icon into the 18th Century because of the Cretan-Venetian influences that are evident in it...This has given rise to the suggestion that when the original colours began to fade and the wood to warp, it was decided to copy the precious original on to the back of the same wood.”
If you would like further reading/meditation on this icon I’d suggest this book.
I love the dark blue of the maphorion of the Mother of God, with flashing gold lines (assist) and the teal blue/green of the Child’s chiton (a garment that looks like a long shirt). Because of the complexity of this icon, and no doubt my age (!) I worked many months to complete it. I asked my friend in Taos, the Master Woodworker, Roberto Lavadie to create a frame with roses all round it. Usually, as with the icon “The Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church” we keep the natural color of the wood. When I brought the icon to Taos, Roberto, his wife Carol and son Jose’ and I were having coffee together and suddenly I imagined the frame to be painted deep red. I think it turned out very beautiful. You can see both the framed and unframed pictures on my website.
The Redemptorists have always brought this particular Marian devotion into the world, and that of St Gerard Majella as well. My favorite writer on icons, Paul Evdokimov, once called icons “glass torches” in his book “The Art of the Icon : A Theology of Beauty.” I read this book in 1990 just as I was beginning my iconographic apprenticeship here in Albuquerque. This idea of a glass torch I intuitively understood, and that has been my dream, my hope. If only one out of the 320 images and icon turns out to be a glass torch for the Church; this is enough for me.
Once again to quote Our Lady of Perpetual Help, “Why don’t you just ask ?”