“Our Lady of Perpetual Help” is not the only designation that has been given to the icon. Over the years it has been known as “The Golden Madonna”, “Virgin of the Passion”, “Virgin of St Matthew’s”, and “Our Lady of the Home”. However, when Pope Pius IX commissioned the Redemptorists to make the icon known throughout the world, he did so calling the Madonna depicted thereon as “Our Lady of Perpetual Help”.
Going back into the Middle Ages there are many traditions and legends about this icon. But it also has a verifiable history to which we can here turn our attention.
The most recent restoration of the icon was undertaken in 1990. It was a thorough process for which the Redemptorists commissioned the technical services of the Vatican Museum. During that time, expert analysis put the date of the wood in the icon as around 1325-1480 CE.
Artistic analysis of the pigments suggests the painted icon is from a period after 1700 CE. This may well explain why the icon offers a synthesis of oriental and occidental elements, especially in the facial features.
It is difficult to trace the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help prior to its years in the little Church of St Matthew, situated in Rome between St John Lateran and St Mary Major. In 1798, war raged in Rome and the church and adjacent Augustinian monastery were destroyed. The icon was transferred by the fleeing community to a private chapel in the Church of St Mary in Posterula, near the ‘Umberto I’ bridge that crosses the Tiber.
Br Augustine Orsetti, who died in 1853 at the advanced age of 86, and one of the friars from old St Matthew’s, remembered the recent history of the icon. He passed onto Michael Marchi, an altar boy at St Mary’s, the whereabouts and significance of the icon, for Brother Augustine longed for it to be once again publicly venerated.
In 1855, the Redemptorists acquired property on the Via Merulana between St Mary Major and St John Lateran Churches, roughly in the spot where old St Matthew’s stood. Here, they built their General House and erected a church in honour of the Most Holy Redeemer and dedicated it to St Alfonso de Liguori. One of the young men to begin his novitiate at the new house was young Michael Marchi, the altar boy who knew about the icon. At a later date, after his ordination, in response to enquiries made by the Redemptorists about old St Matthew’s and its Marian devotions, Fr Marchi was able to point them in the direction of the icon at St Mary’s.
The superior general of the Redemptorists, Fr Nicholas Mauron, petitioned Pope Pius IX to have the icon transferred to St Alfonso Church on the Via Merulana. In response, the pope encouraged the transfer of the icon, and according to tradition, this was when he directed the Redemptorists “to make her known”. On April 26, 1866, the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was presented for public veneration in the Church of St Alfonso.