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Fortified Manasija Monastery

Date of Submission: 15/04/2010
Criteria: (i)(ii)(iv)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Serbia to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Gornja Resava -east Serbia
Coordinates: N44 06 03 E21 28 10
Ref.: 5536

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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 defence 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 defence. 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 defence concept allowed two level of the monastery defence, 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 defence 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.

From other structures that used to be part of the original monasterial settlement, a refectory is preserved for the most part - a monumental two-storey building and the "small quarters".

Today, Manasija is a living monastery.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

(i) to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius

The Manasija monastery wall paintings are of the utmost artistic value in the Eastern Christian world in the early 15th century. It goes far beyond the local, while marking the 15th century Serbia as a creative realm, producing masterpieces of that time. In their noble beauty, along with a predominant spirit of the tradition they belong to, the Manasija frescoes display an indication of a Renaissance understanding in some compositions and figures, thus constituting a rare high point in the Byzantine art in its final decades.

(ii)  to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;

A special feature of the Manasija Monastery is its fortification. Unlike the mediaeval monasteries (Mount Athos, Syria), with only a perimetral wall and a tower as their defence systems, the Manasija Monastery defence system had a fortification built with ramparts and towers. The defence concept was based upon the Byzantine military architecture tradition and experience, which included modern elements from the West European practice, thus displaying a combination of Byzantine influences and Western trends. The fortification features 104 machicolations on the towers and ramparts. The donjon is distinguished inside the walls, being the best fortification solution in the Serbian mediaeval military architecture.

(iv) to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history

The monasterial complex is an extraordinary creation of the Serbian mediaeval sacral heritage. A traditional special arrangement of the monasterial settlement was applied in Manasija, but instead of one perimetral wall, a real fortification was built of the cold weapons defence concept. Also, a concept of simultaneous construction of both the monastery and the fortification is a unique example in the lands under the Byzantine influence.

(vi) to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance

Despot Stefan Lazarević, founder of the monastery, ruled in Serbia from 1389 to 1427. After his death in 1427, he was buried in the monastery church. During the archaeological investigations, in 2006, a ruler's grave was discovered in the south-east corner of the nave. As a ruler and a figure of versatile education, equally turned to both the East and the West, he supported artistic activities, literary and translating activities in particular, which he himself went in for. The Manasija Monastery was the most significant translating and copying centre of that time.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The monasterial complex is preserved mostly in its original form. The fortification towers and the ramparts are mainly preserved up to the passageway level, with some remains of the parapet and the merlons. Apart from the conservations works, the restoration ones have been also conducted in the upper zones of some sections of the ramparts and towers.

The monastery church is mostly preserved in its authentic form, except for the window stone frames. Most changes were made in the narthex, during reconstruction works in 1735 and 1844, when it obtained its present look.

The refectory is preserved in part. Systematic archaeological investigations are underway and are expected to provide information on how the refectory and other monastery structures used to look like.

Comparison with other similar properties

The special arrangement of the monasterial settlement corresponds to the solutions applied in the mediaeval Serbia, based upon the Byzantine models. The closest analogies may be found in the present Bulgaria (Rila Monastery) and in Greece (Mount Athos Monasteries), where the monasterial settlement structure feature some elements of fortifications (towers), also appearing in the 15th century in some monasterial complexes in the southern regions of mediaeval Serbia (Lesnovo, Banjska, Dečani). However, for the Manasija Monastery, completely built as a fortification with all its elements (towers, ramparts, keeps, scarps, dry ditch), there are no direct parallels, thus being a unique structure of that kind.

Within the Buzantine art and the art pertaining to its cultural realm, the Manasija frescoes may be compared to the greatest achievements of the first half of the 15th century, like those in the Kalenić Monastery in Serbia, the Mistra Churches in Greece and the works of art of the famous Russian painter, Andrei Rublev.