by Bernard Lauwyck
The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer or the Redemptorists arrived in Dominica in 1902 with the arrival of Bishop Philip Schelfhaut, a belgian Redemptorist and 5th Bishop of Roseau. He brought with him several Redemptorist priests and brothers to minister and to serve.
The Redemptorists brought with them the devotion to our Lady of Perpetual Help and in 1921 a beautiful triptych of Mary, the mother of Jesus, under the title of Our Lady of Perpetual help was donated and installed in the Roseau Cathedral.
This religious artwork can now be viewed and venerated at the St. Gerard’s Chapel in Roseau.
The definition of a triptych is any three-panelled picture , screen or mirror. The term was originally applied to three-panel religious paintings used on altars in churches, one of the most famous being the Ghent altarpiece (AD 1432) by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck called the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb ( in Dutch: Het Lam Gods or The Lamb of God).
The painting is set into an oak frame with two side panels attached. When the two panels are closed, one notices the inscription :
“GIFT FROM LOUISA POTTER”
I understand that members of the Potter family, notably Cynthia , played the pipe organ in the Cathedral for many years.
The left panel reads
“COMFORT TO THE AFFLICTED”
This is based on the fact that Mary is the mother of God in heaven as she was on earth, because Jesus, remains her Son for all eternity.
She knows and personally experienced human misery.
She obtains, by intercession with her Son, gentle rest for all who are laden with trouble and pain; she gives comfort to the afflicted and healing to the sick.
The wood carvings of roots, stem, branches, leaves and flower depicts one of the most commonly Old Testament prophecies in Christian Art; the TREE of JESSE, which flowers into JESUS, the flower on top.
“And there shall come forth a rod out the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” Isaiah (11.1)
The right panel reads
“HEALTH OF THE SICK, P.F.U” ( Pray for us).
Mary is asked to pray for us, to intercede on our behalf before God, her Son, as she did during the wedding in Cana.
A prayer to Mary reads :
“O Mary, obtain consolation for the sad,
help for the poor, health for the sick
and forgiveness for sinners.”
When we focus in on the centre panel we notice the words below :
O.L.OF PERPETUAL SUCCOUR, P.F. U.”
OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL HELP, PRAY FOR US”
The Fleur-de-Lys is placed very prominently on top, gold on blue. A stylized lily, in French, “ fleur de lis” literally means “lily flower”. The lily is associated with Mary for her perfect purity and chastity.
In the centre panel, a delicately carved oak frame contains the letters A M for AVE MARY or Hail Mary, the greeting spoken to young Mary by the angel Gabriel, announcing the birth of Christ to her (Luke 1:26): “ HAIL MARY FULL OF GRACE, THE LORD IS WITH YOU, BLESSED ARE YOU AMONG WOMEN “ .
Like all religious images, an icon is as a “window to Heaven”, a portal through which one sees greater Truths than can be revealed by words alone. Icons are not painted but written as a prayer, layer after layer, eight layers or more. The painter starts with the darker colours and, as he or she proceeds, brings out the light from darkness by applying lighter colours till the final layer:the bright gold leaf. “THE LIGHT SHINES IN THE DARKNESS”. John 1:5.
Nearly every aspect of this icon has symbolic meaning. Therefore iconographers will copy older icons as close as possible. Individuality in style and contents is to be avoided. This icon existed already in the 16th Century Serbia (churches of Lesnovo and of Konce) under the name “the icon of the Mother of God of the Passion” (“STRASTNAIA” ).
The title is written on top of the icon: the Greek letters : MP OY. This is the abbreviation of “METER THEOU”, Greek for “Mother of God”.
Two angels are holding the instruments of Christ’s Passion. They are identified with Greek letters. On the left is the archangel St. Michael. He is holding the lance and gall-sop. On the right is the archangel St. Gabriel. He holds the cross and the nails.
In this icon the Mother of God has one star on the veil over her head. She is the Star of the Sea, the one who brought the light of Christ to the darkened world , the star that leads us to the safe port of Heaven, Our Lady of safe Haven.
Mary wears a dark blue mantle (as worn by mothers in Palestine) on a red tunic, the colour worn by virgins at the time of Christ. The icon illustrates that she is both virgin and mother.
Next to Jesus appear the letters IC XC Greek and old Bulgarian spelling for Jesus The Christ .
The Mother of God holds Jesus on her left arm, who looks back fearfully at one of the angels symbolising his passion, his future suffering. For protection, He seeks refuge with his mother: He seizes with his two hands the right hand of his Mother. This is so beautiful, so very human.
The entire background is golden, symbolic of Heaven where Jesus and Mary are now enthroned. The gold reflects on the highlights of the garments of Mary and Jesus. The holiness of heaven burst out of this artwork.
Jesus is not depicted as the little baby, but as Christ-Emmanuel “ God among us” , clothed in glorious gold, red and green. His mission as Saviour is to come into the world to suffer the Passion. Though he is God, he is human as well and afraid of this terrifying future. One sandal slips from his foot. He clings to his mother, who holds him close in this moment of panic and fear.
Mary will be at his side till he dies on the cross. While she can’t spare him his suffering, she can love and comfort him.
This Icon is about Our Lady, not about beautiful colours or shiny gold leaf !!!
This is a woman with a saddened tender face looking straight at the spectators.
We, as spectators become part of this icon, we are drawn into her eyes. Her motherly tenderness, protection and love is not only for her Son, but directed straight at each of us. She offers us the same comfort and love she gave her Son.
This is the meaning and symbolism of this picture.
This triptych has a prominent place in St. Gerard’s Chapel in Roseau, till the day it will return to the Cathedral. In the mean time, let us take the opportunity to re-discover its meaning and symbolism. One can only appreciate what one understands.
This is high quality religious art on display in Dominica. Do not miss it. Do not take it for granted.
On Wednesday April 13th 2016 the Redemptorists in Dominica will celebrate and commemorate 150 years of dedication to Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the OLPH chapel at GIRAUDEL.
PS : An authentic large icon of OLPH can also be found at the church in St. Joseph. This was obtained and installed by Fr. Mike Houston CSs.R when he was parish priest there.