Our Lady of the Rocks – From Rocks to a Sanctuary

From a lecture that was part of the St. Tryphon day celebrations in Rijeka

On the occasion of the celebration of the feast of St. Tryphon [1]St. Tryphon is venerated by both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. There are in fact 4 St. Tryphons recorded in history, but the one referred to in this article is Tryphon of Campsada. In Montenegro he is the patron saint of vines and of gardeners. His skull is kept in Montenegro, in Kotor Cathedral. in Rijeka, the Bay of Kotor 809th Marine  (Rijeka) [3]This is not a naval or coast guard unit but a commemorative organization based in Croatia that seeks to represent the Croatian minority in Montenegro‘s Bay of  Kotor. The Croatian minority there are called ‘Bay Croats’, Bokelj Hrvati, from, Boka Kotorska. The organization has its own website. It states that it has 800 members in the Croatian cities of Zagreb, Rijeka, Split, Pula and Dubrovnik. Former President of Croatia Stjepan Mesić can be seen on their home page. Unlike the Croats of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bokelj Hrvati have no right to settle in the Republic of Croatia proper. organized a series of events related to that saint and to the Bay of Kotor generally. Among other events, on February 7th, a lecture was held in Rijeka City Hall on the famed mariner’s shrine in that Montenegrin bay – Our Lady of the Rocks.

The shrine [2]The Croatian language in its usage does not clearly differentiate between a ‘shrine’ and a ‘sanctuary’ and this is reflected in the translation by the use of both ‘sanctuary’ and ‘shrine’. of Our Lady of the Rocks is constructed on an artificially built islet of the same name that stands in front of the settlement of Perast. It is Perast’s second islet, the first being the islet of St. Juraj (St., or Sv., Svijeti, Đorđe in Montenegin). The islet upon which the sanctuary was built was created by the gradual adding of rocks around the existing exposed natural rock and the sinking of decommissioned boats around it.

The construction of the original chapel on the islet began on July 22, 1452. According to legend, the Mortešič brothers who were fishermen from Perast, found a picture of the Virgin Mary and a boy Jesus on the rocks, and it was associated with the miraculous healing of one of them. Even prior to 1482, the area that had been built up around the natural rocks was large enough to build a chapel on it, which the pious inhabitants of Perast and its surrounds did. The islet was gradually expanded, as was the church. The islet now reaches a total area of 3030 m2 (0.75 of an acre) [4]It is not beleived that the Vatican has investigated and declared the site to officially be a place of apparition or miracle. The religious devotion to such sites in the Catholic church is very common, especially in Latin America. The beautifully decorated church is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and it accompanies the mariner’ shrine of Our Lady of the Rocks. The Croatian name of the church and the shrine, Gospe od Škrpjela, is derived from Montenegrin. In that language the word for rock is škrpio or škrpjel, and this in itself is derived from the Latin word for rock, skopulus.

The arduous building of the artificial islet and sanctuary occured against a historical backdrop of constant anxiety over the proximity of the Ottoman border [5]See Ottoman Empire, plundering pirate attacks and earthquakes and storms. These building activities became symbolic to the people of Perast and to those of the bay of Kotor generally. In particular, they became an expression of the faith, culture and spirituality of the Croats of the Kotor region.

A celebration called ‘fašinada’ that is held every July the 22nd commemorates the creation of the islet and the construction of the church and the other buildings on it. At dusk, on the celebration day, Perast residents and those of the surrounds row to the islet in boats loaded with stones, which they throw into the sea around it. Thus the centuries-old tradition of maintaining the shrine continues. There is also a special ceremony on the islet at the feast of the Assumption [6]The Assumption of the Virgin Mary is celebrated by numerous denominations of Christianity.. [7]Perast is also associated with a cake and Kotor and Montenegro are agreeable places to visit, aside from for religious reasons. Montenegro’s coast is on average warmer than Croatia’s and it has slighty longer summers due to its more southerly poistion on the easern Adriatic shore. It is also cheaper. It has the most substantial Venetian coastal fortifications on the Adriatic and features numerous large stone houses built by successful mariners in past times. They are on average larger than what is seen in Croatia for the equivalent periods of history. [8]Our Lady of the Rocks falls within the Montenegrin Diocese of Kotor which is under the Archdiocese of Bar, which Archbishop Kokolja currently heads. Unconfirmed, and surprising information, obtained from what appears to be Vatican sources, has indicated that the Archdiocese is not actually completely officially a body that is recognized by and that answers to the Vatican. This information is contrary to numerous sources, including Wikipedea. However, it is the Vatican that would know. If it is true, then this does suggest that errant clergy there cannot be disciplined properly, or derobed, according to Vatican rules. This may, again, if true, indicate a standard of behaviour in Motenegro, for Catholic clergy, that is lower than the average. No Pope has visited Montenegro, whose Catholic population is around 3.5%, since the breakup of Yugoslavia. The majority of Montenegro’s population are of the Orthodox faith. The current Pope, Francis, is scheduled to visit Montenegro in 2020, so perhaps something has changed.

The present form of the architectural complex of the shrine was completed between the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries. The walls and ceiling of the church were painted by a Baroque painter from Perast, Tripo Kokolja. This according to the Archbishop of Bar, Andrija Zmajević from Perast, a theologian, writer and art historian.  A painting of Our Lady of the Rocks adorns the main altar. Its authorship is attributed to a Croatian Gothic-Renaissance painter from Kotor, Lovro Dobričević.

Next to the religious buildings the ‘Guardian’s House’ was built. It accomodated the priest. Today it houses the museum that displays a diverse record of the maritime and cultural past of the bay of Kotor and especially of Perast. Opposite the church is the ‘Reconciliation Hall’, which was once a place of local reconciliation and conflict resolution.

The church and museum have preserved many valuable gifts, some large, which generations of people, especially mariners, from the Kotor region have brought to the sanctuary. Over the centuries, people, convinced of her miraculous powers and grateful for her mercy, have brought them in offering to Our Lady of the Rocks.

Ljubica Štambuk


Stambuk Association – Selca, Island of Brac, Croatia
OIB 55907686126
e-mail: info@stambuk.hr

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