Manasija, the Serbian fortified monastery
Manasija is one of the most important monuments of medieval Serbian culture. It is a Serbian Orthodox monastery located near the town of Despotovac in central Serbia.
Manasija is the endowment of Despot Stefan Lazarević. The Divine Liturgy held on 5th August 2018 marked 600 years since its construction was finished.
Manasija, the monastery’s location
A winding road leads to this fascinating monastery complex.
Manasija is located two kilometres from the town of Despotovac, in a forested valley. It is also known as Resava, because of the little river Resava that flows near the monastery.
Despotovac was first mentioned in 1381 as the village of Vojnik, which was under the command of Prince Lazar. The village was settled in and abandoned several times during Turkish rule. In 1882, by decree of King Milan Obrenović, it was named Despotovac in honour of Despot Stefan Lazarević.
You can reach Despotovac by public transport, i.e. buses go directly from Belgrade. But first call the bus station in Despotovac (phone number: +381 35 611 162) to get the most reliable information about the bus arrivals/departures from both directions. If you go by car, take the E75 motorway from Belgrade through Svilajnac to Despotovac.
Also, you can walk from Despotovac to the Manasija monastery because the distance is about two kilometres.
Visiting hours: from May to October between 8-19h, and from November to the end of April between 8-16h.
Within the monastery complex, there is a souvenir shop, located next to the entrance to the monastery complex. There you can find souvenirs, such as icons, books, jewellery, hand-sewn garments, wine, fruit preserves …
Despot Stefan Lazarević
Since Despot Stefan Lazarević was the patron of the monastery of Manasija, I would like to say a few words about him.
He was one of the most important and favourite Serbian rulers of all time. Despot Stefan well as a knight, a philosopher, and a poet as well.
Stefan Lazarević was predestined to be a ruler by birth. He was born in 1377 as the first son of Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović and Princess Milica, also known as Empress Milica (from the Nemanjić dynasty). After Prince Lazar had been killed in the Battle at Kosovo in 1389, his underage son Stefan ruled the state with the help of his mother. At that time, Serbia became an Ottoman vassal. So Stefan occasionally helped the Ottoman Empire with his army.
In 1402 he received the title of despot, a Byzantine court title, from the Byzantine Emperor. In early 1404 he became an ally of the Hungarian king Sigismund, from whom Despot Stefan Lazarević received Mačva and Belgrade, which became the new capital.
During his rule, he tried to balance between the Hungarian and the Ottoman empires in order to save the independence of the already weakened Serbian state. Despite his victories, there were conflicts between the Serbian gentry patrons and later between Stefan and his brother Vuk.
Despot Stefan Lazarević suddenly died on 19th July in 1427 after a heart attack while hunting.
The history of Manasija
Stefan Lazarević wanted to build a bigger and more beautiful church than Ravanica, built by his father, Prince Lazar. He was also looking for a perfect location for his resting place. And he found it near the little river Resava.
The monastery was built from 1407 to 1418. The church inside the complex was dedicated to the Holy Trinity.
Despite its spiritual significance and protection towers, Manasija was burnt, plundered, and destroyed many times during the centuries-old Turkish rule. When the Serbian state lost its independence in 1459, the monastic life in the monastery started to die out.
In the first half of the 18th century, the monastery was partially restored. But it was destroyed again during the First Serbian Uprising. When Prince Miloš Obrenović visited it in 1832, Manasija was in a horrible condition. And it was a risk to the monks and the local population.
The extensive works were undertaken in 1844 and later in 1956. Since then many efforts have been made to preserve and protect this magnificent Serbian monastery.
Manasija monastery complex
The view of the monastery complex is amazing!
It consists of a fortress with 12 towers, the Holy Trinity Church, and a large dining room, a so-called “school”.
In front of the main walls with towers, there used to be a lower rampart. Today we can see the ruins, but this concept allowed a two-level defence of the monastery.
Manasija: the fortress with towers
Since the monastery was built in turbulent times, it was constructed as a fortification surrounded by tall walls and towers. There is only one entrance on the west side between the two towers.
And when you walk between them, you feel like you’re back in medieval time…
The eleven towers have the ground level, six storeys, a promenade linking defensive walls – ramparts.
The towers and ramparts are connected by special passageways on the 4th storey of each tower.
Only one tower is different: Donjon, the largest and the most impressive tower. Also known as the Despot Tower, it is completely closed. The wooden structures partition the tower interior into five floors. The ground floor of the tower is at the level of the entrance, i.e. 10.5m above the monastery yard. There is a circular room supposedly used as a granary.
But there is something interesting about the walls and towers: machicolations.
Do you know their purpose?
Well, a machicolation is an opening or a bulging balcony on the upper part of a tower or fortress.
Through the holes on the floor boiling oil, stones, and other materials were dropped on the attackers!
These defensive balconies are rarely preserved in the Serbian medieval architecture, not only in the Manasija monastery. Their origin is from the Middle East and they had been used since the 12th century in the West fortifications. But in the Serbian territory, they appeared as a defensive element at the beginning of the 15th century.
Today, outside the tower, you can climb the narrow and steep metal stairs to the ground floor level.
It is not possible to enter inside.
From here, the view of the monastery complex is absolutely amazing!
The Holy Trinity church in Manasija complex
The most important building in the monastery complex is the church dedicated to the Holy Trinity.
It belongs to the architectural style called “Morava School”. The church was built according to the model of Ravanica Monastery, the foundation of Prince Lazar. But it is also very different from other churches from that period.
The church consists of two separate parts: the naos (an inner room) in the east, and the narthex on the west side.
In the middle of the naos is the dome. The upper pillow construction is carried by four high pillars with four semicolons. In the narthex part, the floor of white marble and red limestone is partially preserved, with one interesting mosaic.
On the outside, the walls are made of cut stone blocks of sandstone, arranged in regular rows.
The church was devastated many times. Even its lead roof was removed. For more than one century the roof of the monastery leaked and most of the frescoes were irretrievably damaged. And the west part of the Church was badly damaged during an explosion of gunpowder in the 17th century during the Austrian occupation.
The tomb of Despot Stefan
For a long time, it was thought that the tomb of Despot Stefan was in Koporin monastery, which was also his foundation.
According to the historical data, the area adjacent to the south wall of the west bay in medieval Serbia was exclusively intended for the burial of the founder.
During the archaeological exploration in 2006, in the southwest corner of the naos, some remains were found. And DNA analysis confirmed that the remains belonged to Despot Stefan Lazarević.
The Serbian Orthodox Church canonized Despot Stefan Lazarević 500 years after his death, on 19th July (in the Julian calendar) in 1927, as Saint Stefan, Serbian Despot. In his honour, the 1st of August (19 July) is celebrated as the monastery slava, patron saint day.
The Manasija’s frescoes
Of the original Manasija’s frescoes (about 2.000 m2), only one third has been preserved.
In the naos interior, you can see the frescoes that have survived. But the original paintings in the narthex have disappeared.
The frescoes are showing great scenes from the life of Lord Christ and his miracles. Then, there is the Assumption of the Holy Virgin, the Old Testament prophets, saints, emperors, high priests, groups of holy warriors.
The most interesting is the fresco of the founder on the west wall of the main part of the church. It shows Despot Stefan, dressed in a long dark-red and gold tunic. In the left hand, he holds a scepter. And in the right hand, he presents to the Holy Trinity a model of the monastery and the written prayer on the roll.
On the pillars, paintings show the busts of saints in well-preserved medallions of dazzling ornamentation of rainbow colours. Everything is painted in the techniques of the highest quality iconography. Even today we can see the specific azure colour and layers of golden leaves. In the biography of Stefan Lazarević, Constantine the Philosopher wrote that despot had gathered the best masters from the farthest places – even from the islands, referring to the Aegean Islands.
Although the frescoes are damaged, they look fascinating. They are still among the most beautiful and the most valuable achievements in the entire Serbian artistic heritage of the Middle Ages.
The refectory of Manasija
After the church, the most important building in the monastery is certainly the refectory.
It is located south of the church, and about 32m long and 16m wide, in an extended rectangular shape.
The building has two storeys. The ground floor was probably used for food storage.
The upper floor was the dining room for approximately 250 and 300 persons.
The first floor is rather damaged, but the walls still look very impressive.
Also, it is the largest medieval dining room in Serbia.
Close to the dining room are the remains of the kitchen with ovens. There are a few small buildings, probably storage, a workshop, hospital, monk cells, as well.
Despot Stefan as a poet
As a ruler, Despot Stefan Lazarević was very educated. He spoke and wrote Old Slavonic, he could speak Greek and was familiar with Latin. He read a lot and had a large library in the monastery.
But Despot was also a great poet. Some of his most famous works are “Slovo ljubve” (Letter of love), dedicated to his brother Vuk; “Natpis na mramornom stubu na Kosovu” (Inscription on the marble pillar at Kosovo), and “Povelja manastiru Mileseva” (The Charter of the Mileševa monastery).
The Resava School of Transcription
Despot Stefan was a great patron of art and culture. He was providing support and shelter to scholars from Serbia and exiles from surrounding countries occupied by the Ottomans. During his reign, the Resava School of Transcription was founded in Manasija.
Its main founder was Constantine the Philosopher, a Bulgarian medieval writer, and philosopher. He established the famous orthographic school in order to correct errors in the literature incurred by numerous translations and incorrect transcriptions. Also, he was known as the writer of “The Life of Despot Stefan Lazarević”. It is the biography of Despot Stefan with a lot of historical data of that time.
Manasija became a place for learned monks, writers, translators, scribes. They decorated manuscripts and books. Also, Manasija became a symbol of spirituality and enlightenment over the next few centuries. The rules of this school were also applied in other monasteries, such as Ljubostinja, Hilandar, Patriarchate of Peć, Dečani. And its influence was also felt in Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Russia.
Also, the transcripts and translations of the Resava School were considered examples. According to its rules, the quality of manuscripts was measured even during the 18th century.
And these activities were performed for years, guess where: in the dining room of monastery!
What does the expression “Resava School” mean today?
Because of the former copying of books and manuscripts, today, in Serbian slang, the term “Resava School” means something else.
Simply, this expression is used for actions. They are copying, repetition, cheating, falsifying someone else’s work or idea, in whole or in part. It could be used in many areas of life and work: on exams, in education, in the preparation of scientific and other professional papers. Sometimes it could be used in the legislation, in the judiciary, or in pre-election campaigns.
Today it is even more popular because of the internet and easy access to a lot of information.
Well, copy-paste, that’s today’s motto 🙂
Despot Stefan Lazarević, the knight of the Order of the Dragon
Despot Stefan is remembered as a wise statesman, great diplomat, and a brave and successful military leader. According to some historical data, he was also a tall and handsome man. Because of all his qualities, he was one of the knights of the Order of the Dragon.
The Order of the Dragon was established on 12th December 1408 in order to protect Christian Europe and Christian values from the Ottoman Empire. The founder was Sigismund of Luxemburg, the Hungarian king and later the Roman Emperor. The Order’s patron saints were Saint George and Saint Magdalene. The symbol of the Order was a dragon, incurved into the form of a circle. Its tail was around its neck, with a red cross on the back.
The symbol of the Dragon was presented on the Despot’s flag as well.
The Order consisted of 24 members, mostly Sigismund’s political allies and supporters. And the honourable place, according to the founding charter “First among equals”, was dedicated to Despot Stefan, master of Serbia.
Well, it was really a great honour. The Order of Dragon has gathered the most worthy European knights with high moral principles!
JUST OUT, the unique Serbian festival in Manasija
In memory of Despot Stefan, the International Festival JUST OUT has been organized for four years.
The festival organizers are the DSL (Despot Stefan Lazarević Association), Beli orlovi (White Eagles), the Association of knights from Serbia, together with the Municipality of Despotovac.
The aim of the event is to promote Serbian culture and heritage. And of course, traditional and moral values.
The participants of this unique festival are numerous artists and knights from Europe and the world. During the festival days (in 2018 it was held between 24th and 26th August), Manasija is back in the medieval days!
You can see the tournaments in individual fights and group battles. Various martial arts and skills are presented, such as throwing spears, axes, and archery tournaments. And yes, the modern knights are really competing in medieval battles!
Visitors have the opportunity to taste medieval specialities, with a rich cultural and artistic program of songs and games. Walking through the Knight’s village you can get acquainted with the medieval way of life and crafts.
And there is also something interesting for kids. For example, the small school of fencing, shooting a bow and arrow, painting and pottery workshops, and medieval games!
In 2018 more than 100,000 people visited the festival. The festival also reached the world’s web portals and press, such as the London Telegraph, the Oman Times, MSN …
So, if you liked playing as knights when you were a kid, find the time to visit the festival. And enjoy the medieval atmosphere 🙂
What to see more in the vicinity of Manasija?
There are some very interesting places to see in the vicinity of Manasija.
For example, you can visit the fantastic Resava cave estimated to be 80 million years old.
Then you can see the spring Veliko vrelo and the Veliki Buk waterfall, surrounded by green and untouched nature.
And at the exit from Despotovac, there is Park maketa. It is the park of miniature medieval Serbian monasteries.
You can read more about these places in my next posts.
Located in the picturesque gorge of the river Resava, surrounded by hills, the monastery leaves us breathless.
Everything is so peaceful and quiet.
The look at the fortification complex of towers and the church inside wakes the spirit of medieval times.
And you have the feeling that at any moment you can see the knights on their horses,
with Despot Stefan at the forefront …
Manasija monastery: http://manasija.rs/?lang=en
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