Mother of Perpetual Help
The Icon Message
beloved picture may look strange to modern Western
eyes. It doesn't portray Mary as a delicate
maiden with downcast eyes. Her direct gaze and
strong features command our attention. We are
struck by the unrealistic qualities of the figures.
Jesus is the size of a toddler, but his features
are those of an older child. Mary and Jesus
aren't set in a scene but float against a background
This picture was painted in the Byzantine style
of the Eastern Church. The purpose of this style
of art is not to show a beautiful scene or person
but to convey a beautiful spiritual message. Because
the artist is trying to communicate something
more glorious than anything in this world, the
picture isn't a realistic portrayal. A Byzantine
painting is like a door. Seeing a beautiful door
is nice, but who wants to just stand there looking
at the door? We want to open the door and go beyond
it. The door might be attractive or unattractive,
but it is only a door, there to lead us into a
That's how we must approach this picture. The
artist, realizing that no one on earth would ever
know what Mary or Jesus really looked like, and
that their holiness could never be depicted in
purely human terms, has portrayed their beauty
and their message in symbols.
What do you see when you look at this picture?
First of all you see Mary, because she dominates
the picture and because she looks straight at
you -- not at Jesus, not at heaven, not at the
angels above her head. She looks at you as if
to tell you something very important. Her eyes
seem serious, even sad, but they command attention.
This is an important woman, one of power and position.
She is set on a gold background, a symbol of heaven
in the middle ages. She is dressed in dark blue
robes with a green lining and red tunic. Blue,
green, and red were the colors of royalty. Only
the Empress was allowed to wear those colors.
The eight-point star on her forehead was probably
added by a later artist to represent the Eastern
idea that Mary is the star that leads us to Jesus.
To reinforce the symbolism, there is an ornamental
four-point cross to the left of the star on her
The letters above her head proclaim her the Mother
of God (in Greek).
Looking at the painting, we know that she has
the power to intercede for us in heaven.
Mary's gaze is fixed on you, but her arms hold
Jesus. In Byzantine icons, Mary is never shown
without Jesus because Jesus is central to the
faith. Jesus too is wearing the clothes of royalty.
Only an Emperor could wear the green tunic, red
sash, and gold brocade portrayed in the picture.
The Greek initials to the right of the child and
his halo decorated with a cross proclaim that
he is "Jesus Christ."
Jesus isn't looking at us, or at Mary, or at the
angels. Though he clings to his mother, he's looking
away, at something we can't see -- something that
made him run so fast to his mother that one of
his sandals has almost fallen off, something that
makes him cling to her for protection and love.
What would frighten a little boy, even the Son
of God, so much?
The figures that hover on either side of Jesus
and Mary -- the Greek letters above them identify
them as Archangels Gabriel and Michael -- provide
us with the answer. Rather than carrying harps
or trumpets of praise, they bear the instruments
of Christ's Passion.
On the left, Michael holds an urn filled with
the gall that the soldiers offered to Jesus on
the cross, the lance that pierced his side, and
the reed with the sponge.
To the right, Gabriel carries the cross and four
Jesus has seen part of his destiny -- the suffering
and death he will undergo. Though he is God, he
is human as well and afraid of this terrifying
future. He has run to his mother, who holds him
close in this moment of panic, the same way she
will be close by his side through his life and
death. While she can't spare him his suffering,
she can love and comfort him.
So why is Mary looking so intently at us instead
of her child in need? Her gaze brings us into
the story, makes us part of the painting and the
pain. Her gaze tells us that just as Jesus ran
to his mother and found refuge, so too may we
run to Mary.
Her hand does not clasp the hands of her frightened
son in a protective grip, but remains open, inviting
us to put our hands in hers and join with Jesus.
Mary knows there are many things in our lives
that are dangerous and terrifying, and that we
need someone to turn to in times of suffering
and dread. She offers us the same comfort and
love she gave to Jesus. She tells us to run to
her as fast as Jesus did, so fast that we don't
even think about what we wear or how we go, just
so we get there.
What are you waiting for?