Our Lady and Adjectives

This is the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro. The town on the left shore is Perast, and the island with the trees is the monastery of St. George. The boat in the front corner is the water taxi that carried me the short, windy minutes from Perast to the island from which this photo is taken: Our Lady of the Rocks.

In a place of such wild natural beauty, thick with stories and surprises, I found myself contemplating adjectives.

It’s so easy to bang out an email, throw some photos up on Picasa or Facebook and caption them in two minutes: “Crazy view!” “Awesome dinner at X restaurant.” “Our trip was amazing.” I (we?) do it in real conversation, too. Three days on the Bay of Kotor gave Tim and me plenty of opportunities to repeatedly remark to each other about the nature of the scenery, and how we were overwhelmed by it every single time we opened our eyes after a blink. I felt prompted to challenge myself to find the words that actually came closest to describing what I meant. Off the list? Unbelievable, for one; I had no problem believing I was still participating in reality. Awesome was fair game, if awe was genuinely inspired. Crazy, it turned out, was fairly applied to several taxi drivers; but not to mountain vistas.

And so out of that speculation I will attempt to describe perhaps my favorite individual site from our trip: Our Lady of the Rocks, Perast, Montenegro.

In the 1400s, there were a lot of sailors here, but no island. That began to change when two fishermen found an icon (a painting) of the virgin Mary and Jesus on a rocky crag on the water. Inspired by this and (in some tellings) other signs, they committed to build a church to the Lady on the bay, and boatmen of the area began sinking rocks at a designated point (along with the occasional defunct ship). Gradually, a manmade island rose, and a simple church stood on it by the mid-fifteenth century. The present structure dates mainly to the late 1600s, after an earthquake leveled much of the original. Adding to the island became and remains a local tradition.

On the doors to the tiny sanctuary, Mary upholds a ship at sea. The image speaks the overriding nature of the innumerable stories crammed into this space. The church has been and continues to be an important place for the seafaring community. Seamen across hundreds of years have decorated the church with their gifts for answered prayer and safe returns home. 1,700 silver plaques—depicting the circumstances of the givers—line the walls.

Bouquets and ribbons from brides decorate the doorways, and a small museum is crammed with household objects given as offerings by women on behalf of their husbands, sons, and brothers at sea. The boat ride to the island cost €5; the church was free entry; the museum cost €1 for narration by a young guide who was brisk, well-informed, and clearly passionate about the church. When we arrived, the church was empty; the guide almost balked at doing the tour only for us. But as we were finishing, a tour boat from a cruise ship docked and unloaded so many people that the island instantly felt overrun, and the sanctity and wonder seemed trampled.

From the center of the altar, the original icon found by the fishermen presides over the tranquility or clamor. Getting to sleepy, stray-cats-and-pigeons Perast was a little bit of a rough go from Dubrovnik without a car, but seeing—and attempting to describe—the sights was worth the adventure.

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