The well-known epitaphion from the Putna monastery has been devoted particular attention owing to its high value, but is also interesting because of its inscription which has been interpreted in very different ways for more than a century. The text expresses the prayer of Serbian kesarica nun Jefimija and her daughter Serbian vasilisa nun Evpraksija: † Μνήσθητοι, κ(ύρι)ε, τὰς ψυχὰς τῶν δούλων σου καισαρίσις Σερβίας ’Εφημίας μοναχῆς σὺν θυγατρὶ βασιλείσης Σερβίας Εὐπραξίας μοναχῆς. Among a number of assumptions about the mysterious nuns from the highest circles of Serbian society, the most dominant is the one about the wife of despot Jovan Uglješa – nun Jefimija, who is particularly known by her vibrant, emotional verses on works of embroidery.
However, none of the many assumptions has been credible, though the solution doubtless lay within the circle of persons carrying the highest titles in the milieu to which they belonged. It was thus necessary to examine, among the myriad of names and titles, whether the information contained in the inscription is mutually congruous. Above all, along with the name of nun Jefimija there is no title that she carried in her worldly life. She was the daughter of kesar Vojihna, but was not kesarica, as this title belonged only to kesar’s wife in Byzantine and Serbian society. On the other hand, among the highest titles in Byzantium, despina was called vasilisa, and basileus’ wife was called despina. In the case of the epitaphios from Putna, in the inscription in Greek, the title vasilisa and not kesarica had to be written next to Jefimija’s name. As regards the other person, nun Evpraksija, who is mentioned as her daughter with the title of vasilisa, she is not known historically. From her marriage with despot Uglješa, Jelena / Jefimija only had a son who died while still a boy and was buried in Hilandar.
If the inscription is considered as a whole in this light, a simple solution may be proposed – the parts of the inscription with names and titles should be mutually harmonised. To put it simply, if the names of the two nuns are swapped, we obtain a whole whose contents are historically quite acceptable and fully in line with the facts about society in Serbian and Byzantine titles of the time. In that case, the inscription would read: + Μνήσθητοι, κ(ύρι)ε, τὰς ψυχὰς τῶν δούλων σου καισαρίσις Σερβίας Εὐπραξίας μοναχῆς σὺν θυγατρὶ βασιλείσης Σερβίας ’Εφημίας μοναχῆς.
It is hard to say how the names of nuns Jefimija and Evpraksija were replaced with one another. The fact that the epitaphios had a Greek inscription clearly reveals the literary culture and Greek milieu where the work was created. After the death of despot Uglješa, members of his family and the surviving nobles probably found their shelter first in safe Thessaloniki, which had a developed spiritual life and artistic workshops to which the Serbian court and church were connected since the time of St Sava. In one of them, we believe, despina Jelena / nun Jefimija ordered, perhaps already in late 1371, the famous two-sided icon, kept in Sofia today, in which a Bulgarian conservator read a part of the Greek inscription with her name and the title of a vasilisa. It is possible that thereafter, as widows and nuns, the mother and daughter, ordered the epitaphios whose embroidery, given its size, lasted and that they never saw the completed work.
On the other hand, it is not probable that the names of the two nuns got wrong places with a clumsy order of parts of the Greek text in the Serbian milieu. Jefimija, at the time present in the literary life and particularly devoted to the works of this kind, would have certainly noticed the mistake. It is even more probable that, in such turbulent times, the epitaphios did not even reach Serbia but another Orthodox country in the north, where it is still located. However, distant from the society where the mistake in the Greek inscription could be detected, the fabric was highly valued and carefully preserved owing to its high artistic values.
The mention of nun Jefimija in the inscription was since the beginning connected to the person who had a special place in the history of our artistic embroidery. On the other hand, despina Evpraksija, known from the charter of despot Stefan (1405) is not the nun mentioned under this name on the Putna epitaphios. The deed of donation referred to despina Jelena, nun Jefimija, who was Evpraksija in great schema.