Thursday, October 19, 2023

The Shrine of Our Lady of the Rocks in Montenegro

Our thanks to long-time reader Mario Glibić, who has very kindly shared with us this account of an important popular Marian shrine in Montenegro, on an island in the southern part of the Adriatic Sea.

It is impossible to pass through the Bay of Kotor in the southern Adriatic, off the coast of Montenegro, without noticing two small islands nestled in its center, in front of the city of Perast. One of them is a natural formation, covered with cypress trees and other vegetation, bearing the name of St. George; in the past, it was the seat of a Benedictine abbey founded in the 12th century. The other island is man-made, paved with stone slabs and adorned with a church featuring a distinctive blue dome, called Our Lady of the Rocks (Gospa od Škrpjela).

The church of Our Lady of the Rocks 
The two islands seen from Perast
The island of St George
Perast seen from one of the islands
Every year, on July 22nd, a chain of boats interconnected with ropes departs from the historic city of Perast, with the parish priest in the lead boat. Their destination is the nearby island sanctuary of Our Lady, where they are greeted by the church bells. Upon reaching the small island and surrounding it with their boats, they cast stones which they have brought with them into the sea, in the boats, at the places where they are most needed to fortify the embankment upon which the islet stands. This custom is known locally as Fašinada, and its history intertwines with the history of the island itself. Legend has it that on the same date in 1452, two fishermen brothers discovered an image of the Virgin Mary on a rock near the island of St George and brought it with them to Perast. In gratitude for a healing which they received, the image was brought to the local church of St. Nicholas, and it was soon decided to build an island above the rock where it was found, along with a church in honor of the Virgin Mary. The name “Gospa od Škrpjela”, Croatian for “Our Lady of the Rocks”, comes from the word “škrpio” (Latin “scopulus”), which sailors used to refer to a rock or a sea reef.
Historical sources attest that the first chapel on the island existed before 1484. The island and church were expanded during the 16th century, and after a pirate raid on Perast and its churches in 1624, another phase of construction began, lasting throughout the century. During this time, the sanctuary took on the appearance it largely retains today. The church is built of stone from the Croatia island of Korčula, in a simple form with a single nave. A large octagonal dome is located above the altar, while a smaller one stands above the round bell tower.

A view of the church at night.
The church’s nave is almost entirely covered by more than sixty oil-on-canvas paintings, works of a painter from Perast painter named Tripo Kokolja (1661-1713), based on the ideas of the local priest and scholar (and later archbishop) Andrija Zmajević. The side walls feature depictions of Old Testament prophets and the ancient prophetesses called Sibyls, along with four large Marian paintings. The ceiling is adorned with scenes from the life of Christ and Mary, the Evangelists, and Church Fathers. The central feature on the ceiling is a grand depiction of the Assumption, which is also the principal feast of the island church and sanctuary.

In addition to Kokolja’s paintings, the side walls of the nave house a significant collection of silver votive plaques, most of which have been donated by local sailors in gratitude to the Virgin Mary for surviving storms, encounters with pirates, or other perils they faced while traveling the seas and earning their livelihood. It is not surprising that most of these plaques depict various types of ships that the locals used. During the aforementioned pirate raid on Perast, about 600 such plaques were looted. Today, there are believed to be more than 1,500 of them, and new ones are still offered to the shrine by those who received graces for their vows. Many have the Latin words “Votum feci, gratiam accepi. – I made a vow, I received a grace” written on them.

Given that maritime activities were the primary occupation of the residents for centuries, a special connection was formed between them and Our Lady of the Rocks. They prayed in front of the Virgin’s icon before departing and gave thanks upon their return, and to this day, it is a tradition for passing boats to salute Our Lady and her sanctuary with their horns. During the times of peril at sea, the captains from Perast used to raise the flag of Our Lady of the Rocks on the main mast.

The main altar, crafted from various types of marble, is the work of a Genovese master from the late 18th century. At the center of the altar stands the miraculous image of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by statues of St. John the Baptist and St. Roch, both made by the Venetian sculptor Francesco Gaia. The image of the Virgin with the Child Jesus is the work of Lovro Marinov Dobričević, and is painted on cedar wood. It is believed that the altar is positioned directly above the rock where the image was originally found. There have been no changes in the sanctuary of the church following the liturgical reform in the 20th century, and the Holy Mass has continuously been celebrated on the main altar and ad orientem.
There are also two Baroque side altars, the left one dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, and the right one to St Roch, with an image of him painted in 1765 by Francesco Fontebasso.

In a special place to the right of the altar, there is a large silver votive plaque, a gift from the people of Perast after their victory over the Turks on May 15, 1564, when several dozen of them successfully defended the town against approximately five thousand Turkish attackers during. The relief depicts the town itself, the sea with two islets, and the attackers. The news of this significant victory spread far and wide, and that same year, Peter Zrinski, the future Ban (viceroy) of Croatia, visited Perast and presented the town and its residents with a sword that is still preserved there. For their victory, in which none of the defenders lost their lives, the people of Perast are especially thankful to the intercession of Our Lady of the Rocks. The anniversary of this victory is celebrated to this day with a special ceremony, beginning on the eve of the previous day with the transfer of the image of the Virgin from the island to the town. In a unique maritime procession, the image, with a votive plaque attached to its rear, is carried on the bow of a boat, and then displayed for veneration in the parish church of St. Nicholas in Perast.

The main celebration within the sanctuary itself is the feast of the Assumption. On this occasion, not only locals but also numerous pilgrims from near and far gather on the island to honor Our Lady of the Rocks with her song:
Hail, Queen
of the sea of Boka, (i.e. Boka Kotorska, the bay of Kotor)
you are a crimson dawn,
the shield of our faith.

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