Our First Medieval Monasteries

 Manasija Monastery

Manasija was first medieval monastery we visited. My photos can't do justice to the monastery. The aerial photo I snagged online (below) begins to express the beauty of the monastery and its wooded mountian setting. The monastery is surrounded by a massive wall punctuated with 11 towers. It has a 15th century church, a ruined refectory, and modern monastic cells for the nuns who live there now.

Manasija (in Serbian, the letter "J" is pronounced "Y") was built by the Despot St. Stefan Lazarevic (despot simply means ruler and doesn't carry negative connotations in Serbian). He was an imporant Serbian prince, the son of St. Lazar (discussed below), and his relics are enshrined this church. 

The church was frescoed in 1407. St. Stefan spared no expense in the frescoes. He hired the best Serbian icon painters. The backgrounds feature rich and expensive lapis lazuli. The Serbs used more lapis in their frescoes than any other medieval civilization. The colors are vibrant and compositions are dramatic. 

Photography was forbidden in the church, so I am sharing photos from Вера Заварицкая's Flikr

Overview of the nave. 

A few impressions and notes: The space is incredibly vertical. The low iconostasis is modern and beautifully painted. The choros (chandelier) is magnificent. The columns are lobed and richly painted. The frescoes are in remarkably good condition after being exposed to the elements for centuries while the monastery was abandoned. The faces are often the first to deteriorate since they were painted last as the plaster begun to cure. 

Many monasteries like Manasija have been restored in the late 20th century by women's monastic communities. The communists used many tactics to prevent men from becoming monks, especially compulsory annual military service. Women, however, flocked to monasteries, creating a monastic revival. Nuns live at the restored Manasija today, which was originally built as a men's monastery. St. Stefan's relics are in the reliquary to the right at the front of the church. His relics were discovered during the renovations of the church.

Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. 1735
The Descent of the Holy Spirit. 

The patron of the temple is the Holy Trinity, so the festal commemoration is Pentecost.

Holy communion. Communion with wine.
Communion of the Apostles

Saint Nicetas the Goth
Saint Niketa, a dynamic pose I had to study in a sketch.

There was a fantastic fresco of the Hospitality of Abraham, which represents the Holy Trinity. I sketched it because of its graceful forms. These shapes are about all that is visible on the damaged wall.

Ravanica Monastery

Ravanica was built by St. Lazar the Prince-martyr in the 14th century, and was intended to be his burial place. He built it in the form of Athonite monasteries, which are designed with excellent acoustics to facilitate antiphonal chanting during all-night vigils. The monastery was populated originally populated with monks from Mount Sinai and Mount Athos. Many Serbs went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and became monks at Mount Sinai. If they ever returned to Serbia, they came to Ravanica. 

The incorrupt relics of St. Lazar are enshrined in the church today; his body has not decayed in over six centuries. He was a great ruler who defended the Serbian Kingdom against the Turks. He defeated them on Kosovo field in 1389, but was taken captive and beheaded. 

The setting is almost as beautiful as Manasija. It is set in wooded mountains and surrounded by the ruins of a wall. The alternating rows of limestone and brick are more than decoration: the composition of the walls help absorb earthquakes and mitigate structural damage.

The Ravanica frescoes feature incredible workmanship, but unfortunately are in quite poor condition today. Only the fresco of Christ healing the blind man remains in good enough condition to fully show all the features of the figures. I sketched this fresco during my time there.

Lešje Monastery

Lešje Monastery (pronounced Lesh-yeh) was not on our itinerary, but was nearby and is the most unique monastery I've ever seen. 20 years ago, it was heavily forested with the ruined foundations of an old monastery. The monastery was rebuilt by the sisterhood in a quite unusual way. Whimsical is the adjective that came to mind, but that is an understatement! It was a little much for my taste, but it was quite an interesting and unusual experience. It was wonderful to see a vibrant community living and expressing the Orthodox faith.

This unique wooden church was built around trees. This icon is actually brand new; the nuns studied art conservation in Paris and developed a method to artificially age icons by centuries.

Trees growing through the roof!

Schools of trout swam in a stream below the huge windows of the church. Every single icon in the church contained relics of saints rescued from empty and abandoned Catholic Churches in Italy. 

 There were at least 8 large reliquary caskets containing the entire bodies of saints. Look at the trees growing through the ceiling!

The monastery features countless onion domes of all colors, shapes, and sizes. 

We had fish for dinner this evening, with a fresh local salad, potatoes, fresh rolls, and local beer.

Tomorrow, we'll have an early start to visit Zica, Studenica, and Sopocani.


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