Five reasons not to miss Our Lady of the Rocks in Montenegro
If you can tear your eyes away long enough from the magnificent Dinaric Alps surrounding the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro, you’ll spot the bright blue dome on an island in the bay that marks an ancient seafarers’ shrine, the Lady of the Rocks. This unique historical site is definitely worth your time and the effort if you can manage to get out there.
I hadn’t even heard of it before I went to Montenegro, but it was included in a tour we had booked to the blue lagoon. We had zoomed out to the island on a small speed boat on a glorious late summer’s day, bumping high over the crest of the waves. It seemed perfect – the sun was sparkling off the water and we had the music blaring, although my butt was getting tender from from the rocky ride.
Needless to say, I was totally unprepared to soak in the significance of this random little island in the bay – particularly as our skipper said we only had 15 minutes or so to take a look around!
We had time for a whirlwind walk around the island, a meander through the church, and a few happy snaps in front of the iconic, eye-catching blue dome on top of the church’s bell tower, before it was already time to jump back on our boat for risk of missing the next part of our tour.
Although at the time I was naive to the amazing story of this island, I definitely felt there was something really special about the place. I’m sure glad I was wise enough to quickly purchase a little book about the it, together with my ice cold drink at the little shop on the island, to read more about it at a later time.
Once you understand the significance of this place, it brings a whole different dimension to your visit. So here are five things you should know about Our Lady of the Rocks before you head out to visit:
1. Built by the people, for the people
I didn’t know at the time, but the entire island is man-made. Since the 15th century, locals from the nearby town of Perast started piling up rocks on this site on a reef which is apparently where they found a painting of Our Lady one night while out fishing (as you do!).
The painting later became associated with healing the sick, and so they wanted to build a church on this site in honour of Our Lady and house the painting there. Thousands of years later, locals continue to add rocks to the 3030m² island, but now it’s just as part of an annual religious ceremony, in order to give their special little island some TLC.
2. It’s a key part of the regions’ seafaring culture
The church is of course now named, Our Lady of the Rocks, and is honoured and revered by sailors all throughout the coast of this region. From 16th century to this day, some 150 ships were named after our lady of the rocks. The Lady of the Rocks became the patron saint of all those that live from the sea. It is even an old custom for ships to honk their horn in salute to the shrine as they pass by.
In the old days, ships setting out on a long voyage would apparently cross their sails, stop their ship and fire a gun salute. They would raise a large flag three times in recognition and the the shrine’s bell tower would toll in salute.
3. It houses a feast for the eyes and a story of the past
It is because the shrine was so honoured that it now hosts one of the largest collections of votive plates in the world, with over 2000 plates on silver frieze currently housed there. If you don’t know what these are – don’t worry, neither did I! Votive objects are apparently given or done in fulfillment of a vow, in honor and to thank a god. Most often these days in the form of a candle.
In this case sailors who thought they were marching into their own death (for example, heading into a storm or about to be attacked by pirates), would pray to Our Lady and make a solemn oath: should he return to port and survive, he will leave a lasting mark on something valuable (which at the time was silver) and offer it in honor and gratitude.
This is why as you walk into the cooling relief of the church on this tiny island, the rich interior of oil paintings and gleaming silver plates all over the walls will leave you speechless. Literally thousands of silver votives, bearing an inscription and often with pictures of different sailing ships, preserve the memories of centuries of famous, dramatic adventures of the sea.
Some plates record events in writing, but most of them bare a characteristic acronym, ‘VFGA’ (Votum, Feci, Gratiam, Accepi), which translates to “I pledged an oath and received mercy”, which the sailors would include as a sign of his gratitude to their heavenly protector.
4. The beauty holds mystery
The artwork in this cosy little church is equally dramatic. 68 oil on canvas paintings line every inch of the walls and ceiling and immortalises the European baroque style. There is such a richness of colour and story within the building that you would never expect from its rather plain marble exterior.
The story of the artist, Tripo Kokolja, is quite a mystery for art historians who can’t find a wink of information about him other than his birth and death records and his signature on the paintings. He is not even mentioned in the documentation and history of the life in Perast at the time, not even as a witness to events.
They have no idea where he was educated and trained, although the style of his work apparently points to Venice. They do know he died at 52 and there is now a bust of him outside the building.
5.It is still much loved by the locals
Walking through the church is like a museum tour, as it houses quite a few sea-themed artifacts of the region. I noticed closer to the altar in the church, posies and garlands of flowers which seemed to be hanging to dry, which looked quite odd to me. But apparently the brides in the nearby town of Perast wear these garlands in the run up to their wedding day, and are then placed in front of the Madonna after the ceremony; a sign that the church is very much still in use by the locals.
“Oh, console us, you powerful Lady of the Rocks, from the rock on which you desired your temple to shine. Hail the Queen of the Boka sea; you are the red dawn, the shield of our faith” (Our Lady of the Rocks hymn)
If you ever get the chance to visit this island, make sure you have plenty of time to take in all the stories, votives, beautiful artwork and treasures this place holds about the rich seafaring history of the Adriatic coastal region.
You can pick up the tourist monograph about the island from the small shop near the islands’ boating dock for €9. You can easily gain access to the island on one of the many tours leaving several times a day from Kotor and Perast.