Guide to our lady of the rocks in Perast, Montenegro

29 March 2023
Author - Jonathan Howe
The alluring church, Our Lady of the Rocks, built on an island in Montenegro made by human hands, is rich in legends and tradition, and there is almost no stone on this ridge that does not whisper a story. One of the two islets off the coast of Perast in the Bay of Kotor was made of bulwarks of rocks and by sinking old and confiscated ships loaded with rocks.

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The legendary genesis of Our Lady of the Rocks

This story starts at the end of the 15th century. It is known that in the past, sailors often identified the Mother of God with their own, and it is understandable when you consider that they went on their first voyages as children. Of course, nostalgia for maternal tenderness accompanied them throughout the journey.
A boy from Boka Kotorska, named Marko, embarked on his first boat trip at a very young age. In the first port, he saw an icon of the Virgin at a local paintings seller and got it as a gift from his captain. Upon his return, he would realized that his mother died exactly at the moment when he set his eyes on the icon in a distant port. Out of gratitude to the monks who took care of his mother, he gave it to the Church of St. Michael the Archangel on the peninsula of Prevlaka. Not long after, a peasant rebellion took place, and the whole peninsula burned in flames, together with the church and all the valuables in it. 

This legend continued many years later. Apparently, on their way back from fishing, the Mortičić brothers saw an unusual light on the reef near Perast. When they approached the place, they saw an icon believed to be the one that allegedly burned in a church on the peninsula. They brought it to the church in Perast, but it disappeared during the night, and the fishermen found her again on the same reef in the middle of the sea.

The miracle repeated every night, and it was a clear sign to the people of Perast that a sanctuary dedicated to the Mother of God should be built on a small ridge. They began to bring stones and built an islet around the rock on which the icon was found.

A unique Treasure

The present temple is a product of construction activities from the end of the 17th and 18th centuries - the original chapel was destroyed in a terrible earthquake in 1667. Nowadays, it is a whole complex of buildings. On the very edge of the islet, there is a so-called 'Hall of Peace' in which the inhabitants of Perast settled various disputes.
The most precious room is the museum segment of the church, which stores the largest collection of ship paintings in Europe. They show various details and scenes of maritime life, such as the battle of Perast with pirates in the south of Greece, the most famous Boka ship, 'Leon Coronato', in the storm, the sea battles between the local sailors and the Ottomans, and so on. Numerous weapons from that time are also exhibited in the gallery. Six valuable ship figureheads adorn this treasury and represent the symbolic protection of sailors on dangerous voyages. 

The most impressive item in the museum is a tapestry made by a lady from Perast in the 19th century. It took her twenty-five long years to accomplish the masterpiece while she was waiting for her husband to come back from a sea journey. All the while, she was praying to Our Lady of the Rocks, asking for the blessing and safety of her beloved. She used seven different materials for her artwork: Chinese and Japanese silk, silver and gold threads, multicolored real pearls, damask, and her own hair. This technique she used is called 'Punto - Pintura,' and this piece of art contains 650 needle stitches per square centimeter. 

Famous Baroque artists painted the interior of the church, and its walls are decorated with over two thousand silver votive tablets. The sailors donated these valuables to the church as a token of gratitude for the rescue they received during the dangerous voyages. 

Such a maritime archive is a unique part of the history of this region and represents a significant artifact of world cultural heritage. 

A tradition that still lives on  

Some votive, ancient customs which survived the burden of time still celebrate the commitment and persistence of local people. Fašinada, the most famous of them, is held every year. A row of boats from Perast sails in procession to Our Lady of the Rocks, decorated with flowers and laden down with rocks. When they arrive, people toss rocks into the waters just off the shore of the islet, both as a symbol and as a practical way to expand it. The primary idea is that the island grows over time and that every resident participates in this process with at least one stone. Afterward, they attend a mass of thanksgiving before they go back to Perast, where more celebrations await them. Numerous guests visit the island for various reasons. Some arrive on their yachts and boats, the others in organized tours with the help of a tour guide. The remarkable 3030 sq.m. surface of the island is often a spot where dream weddings take place.
A tour of Kotor's bay couldn't be complete without visiting Our Lady of the Rocks, both for the breathtaking view on the bay and surrounding mountains, but also for the exceptional cultural heritage it represents. The islet can be accessed easily via boat tours and taxi-boats, and setting foot on it is a wonderful way to connect with the spirit of Boka's traditional lifestyle.
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