Serbian Cultural Heritage

Fortified Manasija Monastery

Manasija Monastery is located in the Resava river gorge, about 135km south-east of Belgrade. As an endowment of Despot Stefan Lazarević, the monastery was built in the hard times after the Battle at Kosovo (1389) and its construction lasted from 1406/7 to 1418. Its special feature is its fortification, capable of defending and protecting the monastery settlement. The Manasija fortification has eleven towers and a specially defended section at its east end with the twelfth tower. In their defense and architectural features, the towers are identical to each other – all having the ground level, six storeys and the passageway with merlons. They are connected by defensive walls – the ramparts, also with merlon crenelation. Between the towers and the ramparts a connection is made through special passages on the fourth storey of each tower, allowing the defenders to move around all the time, as well as a good monastery defense. Only a donjon was not built in the same way. The towers and the ramparts have machicolations – defensive galleries, quite rare in Serbian military architecture. Actually, it came indirectly into use in Serbia – as a result of Byzantine influence, whereas the crusading campaigns to the Holy Land brought them to Byzantium from the West.

In front of the main wall with the towers, there was a lower rampart with a sloping scarp, today mostly in ruins, and in one section there was a ditch with the counterscarp. Such a defense concept allowed two level of the monastery defense, and with the implemented solutions on the Belgrade fortifications, it became a model for constructing the Smederevo double ramparts in the later period. The donjon had its special place in the monastery defense system, today recognised and the Despot’s Tower. It is the most massive and the only closed tower, with the ground level 11m elevated from the monastery yard level. The tower interior is partitioned with wooden structures between the five storeys. On the fifth level there are defensive galleries – machicolations, having a significant role in the safety of the donjon. The Despot’s Tower of Manasija is one of the most successful structures in the Serbian military architecture and can compared with the crusade fortifications along the Asia Minor coast, but also with the towers of the Mount Athos monasteries. In its special and general architectural arrangement and its numerous details, the monastery church belongs to the Morava School style in the Serbian sacral architecture. It consists of two clearly separated sections – the nave and the narthex. The nave is of a rectangular cruciform ground plan, with five cupolas combined with a triconch. It was built of sandstone blocks and the exterior decoration is made by combining the Byzantine and Romanesque elements.

In the Manasija interior, about one third of the erstwhile in all exquisite frescoes have been preserved: from the materials used to an extraordinary prowess in presenting the chosen subjects. They are said to be a 15th century artistic high point in Byzantium and the lands under its influence. The Great Events cycle, Passion of Christ, the wonders and parables, scenes from the life of the Virgin, Eucharist subjects in the altar, the prophets in the main and the seraphs and cherubs in the small cupolas, from the evangelists in the pendentives to individual figures in the first zone, they all testify to a great wealth of subjects represented in the Mansija monastery. On the west nave wall, there is a composition with the ktetor: upon a divine investiture, receiving the emblems of authority from Christ himself and the angels, Despot Stefan Lazarević bestows a model of his endowment and the St Trinity Mausoleum to the church patron. The highlight of an artistic achievement is shown in the figures of Holy Warriors in the first section of the north and south conch, with gilt nimbi, parts of clothing and military equipment, on the azure blue background. Above them on the conch sides, today quite damaged, there are Christ’s parables, including elements from the real life on the Serbian court of that time. There are some similarities between a predominantly “Renassance” atmosphere in this part of the Manasija frescoes and the paintings of Western Europe of that time, a phenomenon unparalleled in the Byzantine art.