On July 22, 1452 two fishermen were sailing through the Bay of Kotor, one of whom was crippled. At that time he naturally believed that his life at sea depended on the grace of the ocean and his faith in God. And it is because of this that his life became intertwined with that of the Mother of God, eventually inspiring the Church of Our Lady of the Rocks, known locally as Gospa od Skrpjela.
P.s. Much of the legend I came to know through Gojko, my incredible private tour guide. Hire him for a full in-depth tour of the Boka Kotorska!
The Legend of Our Lady of the Rocks
July 22, 1452 was a Saturday. As the fishermen sailed by the left hand side of the 12th Century Monastery of St George (Sveti Đorđe) they passed a small crag jutting out of the water.
On it was a painted icon of the Virgin Mary and Child.
Perhaps it was faith that made him do it, or the possibility that the icon was an expensive treasure washed up by a sea-wreck. But as they got closer, the crippled fisherman took one arm from the boat and lifted the icon from the crag. He took it home with him and thought nothing else of it until the next morning…
Waking up the following morning, on a Sunday observed by Catholics across the world, the local fisherman became aware of two things. First, the icon of the Mother and Child was missing. And second, he was no longer crippled.
He ran to tell the priest of the miracle, but with no proof of the icon little could be done aside from offering prayers of gratitude to the woman he believed had saved him.
However just a few months later, as the two brothers were passing again by that small rocky crag in the bay, the fisherman once again spotted the miraculous icon and this time, upon landing in Perast, he ran straight to the priest.
“This is the icon. This is the reason I could run here. This, Father, is the source of my miracle.”
*Alright, his actual words were never written down but I assume he said something like that…
And so, it was decided that a shrine to the miraculous Virgin Mary was to be founded upon that very same crag on which the icon was found. Imagine that? It seems a little ridiculous now. How can you build a Church atop such a small rock?
But a crippled fisherman had been healed and with the dependance that locals to the town of Perast had on the sea it made only perfect sense that they dedicate a sanctuary to the woman who had looked over him, and would continue to look over fisherman and sailors for decades to come.
Old, unused sailing boats were gathered in the bay as well as huge rocks from the area. A procession began in the direction of the crag and once it arrived the boats and rocks were sunk to the bottom of the sea until an island was formed.
And atop that island was built the Our Lady of The Rocks.
The Church you see below was not the original chapel, which was plundered and burnt down by pirates before being replaced in 1630 by the Venetian settlers.
Our Lady of the Rocks: A Sailor’s Guardian Angel
Every year since, a procession has taken place to ensure the island holds strong. It’s called fašinada (read more about it here) and takes place annually on the 22nd July. But this isn’t the only tradition held here.
The Church has become a shrine for sailors throughout the centuries, hoping to stay safe on the seas. First and foremost it is a place of worship, and to this day sailors enter the chapel to pray to the Virgin Mary for a safe passage on their journey.
And when they return safely, their fears at the start of the journey manifest into gratitude towards the woman who has kept them alive and healthy while at sea.
Over 2,500 votive silver tablets are housed at the Church, depicting tales of the threats the sailors survived whilst away from the Bay of Kotor.
Donated to Our Lady of the Rock, some of these votive tablets are on display in the main chapel and provide an incredibly moving tableau of a dangerous life at sea over the course of over 500 years.
Most of these votive tablets cost a great deal to produce, especially in the early days of the tradition, and so they are also a testament to the successful naval community of Perast and the surrounding settlements.
The most costly of all the votive donations is however not a silver tablet but a tapestry. You can see it below, but I’ll be writing another post about this beautiful dedication of love later…
Coming from a Royal Naval family that goes back generations, and living by the sea myself, it struck a chord just how relevant the Church of Our Lady of the Rocks is today, as it was when it was founded. And it seems I’m not the only one who believes in such traditions.
The rock below was left just six years ago by the captain of a cruise ship that had come to dock in the Bay of Kotor. Captain Carl Smith has spoken time and again of how much he enjoys docking in the Bay of Kotor and even wrote a Facebook blog of the day that they made the votive offering.
Edit (02-08-2016): I reached out to Azamara Club Cruises to ask if the Captain himself would like to comment on why he left the votive rock at the Church of Our Lady. Here was his response:
“When I first heard of the tradition of the Lady of the Rock, back in 2010, I was immediately inspired with the idea. Ships of all sizes had taken stones out to the Lady of the Rock and helped build this Island, and then the Church, in return for blessings, and a safe return to their home port. The tradition dated back hundreds of years, and then stopped almost completely, which I thought a huge shame, and is now celebrated only one day per year.
Being a Captain of a Ship, the story touched me. I wanted our ship blessed, and a safe onward journey. It took me several months of negotiations which were supported by the Kotor Pilots, who had told me the story in the first place. We needed permission from Customs, Immigration, Harbour Master, the Church, and all sorts of other individuals and departments of government. When the day finally arrived, and permission was granted, we had to find a stone. I sent my 2nd in Command ashore in Sorrento, Italy, and he returned with our offering. We decided it needed some information on it, and the crew painted it, as you have seen, it stands out! We had no idea it would be cared for so well, or have such a place of honour inside the church, but that always makes me smile when our guests find it there.
I have been to the Lady of the Rock myself to see the stone in person in 2010 with my eldest son, and my wife who was pregnant at the time. My wife and I prayed for a healthy baby, and lit candles in the Church. My son prayed for a Ferrari! Who knows, our prayers came true, he might just have to wait a little longer for his.”
– Captain Carl Smith
*I’ve never been a cruise guest with Azamara Club Cruises so this isn’t an endorsement. But, after great communication with them in pursuit of this quote, and this incredible response from the Captain (there was even more!) if I was to take a cruise I know who I would choose. Plus the Azamara Quest is blessed now…
Since the very first boats and rocks were sunk to lay the foundations for the Church of Our Lady of the Rock, times have changed. Sea passage is still dangerous, but less so and the dependence on the merchant navy, whilst still important, has been diminished by the development of roads and merchant airlines.
Which is why stepping into this historical chapel is so important, for anyone who visits the Bay of Kotor.
The island is a manifestation of the religious devotion of the local community, as well as a testament to their naval success reflected in the pricelessness of the artifacts within.
How to visit Our Lady of the Rocks
๏ The chapel is a Catholic Church and so care should be taken to cover up.
- I had bare shoulders and shorts, which my guide assured me was fine, but the team at Montenegro Pulse found out that you should definitely not arrive in just a swimsuit – no matter the weather!
๏ You can take a cheap boat from Perast or Kotor to the island. I went from Kotor, which is way more fun because you get more time on the water!
๏ Guides are available at the church, or you can take a private guide like I did! Gojko, a local in the Bay of Kotor, was a fantastic guide and I’ll be giving you more insight into our tour of Kotor, Perast and Our Lady of the Rock in a full tour review soon!
- Much of the legend I’m telling you about here was at first beautifully explained to me by Gojko, and I can only hope my retelling of the story is as intriguing as was his.
There’s so much more inside this beautiful chapel that I want to share with you, so keep an eye out over the coming weeks or sign up for my newsletter to be the first to hear about it.
I have to give a huge thank you to Gojko of Kotor Private Guides, not just for the tour and this story but for such great conversation over the course of the day! I took the tour as a guest of the Tourism Organisation of Kotor but as always, opinions are honest and my own.
Lots of love,