"Move a man from his resting place, and in that resting place are worms, insects as translucent as precious stones and mildew…"
Joy seized him like an illness; he transferred his brush from his left hand to his right and began to paint. Colors flowed from him like milk, and he barely had time to spread them on. Suddenly he knew everything: how to mix India ink with musk, that yellow is the fastest color and black the slowest, taking the longest to dry and show its real face. His best colors were “St. John’s white” and “dragon’s blood,” and he coated his pictures not with lacquer but with a small brush dipped in vinegar to give them the color of radiant air. He painted by feeding and healing everything around him with colors — doorposts and mirrors, beehives and pumpkins, gold coins and peasant shoes. On his horse’s hoofs he painted the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and on his own fingernails God’s Ten Commandments; on the well bucket he painted Mary of Egypt; on the shutters he painted both Eves, the first Eve (Lilith) and the second Eve (Adam’s). He painted on gnawed bones, on his own teeth and others’, on pockets turned inside out, on caps and on ceilings. He painted the twelve apostles on live turtles and let them crawl off into the woods. The nights were as quiet as rooms; he would choose the one he wanted, enter, place a lamp behind the board, and paint a diptych. On it he portrayed the archangels Gabriel and Michael passing the soul of a sinner woman to each other through the night from one day to the next, with Michael standing in Tuesday and Gabriel in Wednesday. They walked on the written names of the days, and the pointed letters made blood gush from the archangels’ feet. Nikon Sevast’s paintings were nicer in winter, in the reflected brightness of the white snow, than in the summer, under the sun. They had then a kind of bitterness about them, as if they had been painted during an eclipse, and the smiles on the faces were extinguished in April and lost until the first snow. Then he would sit down to paint again, and only occasionally, with his elbow, would he shove his enormous penis between his legs so it would not bother him while he worked.
People remembered his new paintings all of their lives; monks from the ravine and icon painters from its monasteries flocked to the St. Nicholas Monastery, as if called by a whistle, to see Nikon’s colors. Monasteries began to vie with one another for him, each of his icons brought in as much money as a vineyard, and he painted faster than the fastest horse could run. A record of how Nikon the icon painter worked has been preserved in a book of eight-voice canticles, and this record from 1674 reads:
"Two years ago, on the Day of St. Andre Stratilat, when we begin to eat partridge, I was sitting in my cell at the St. Nicholas monastery," notes the unknown monk in this record, "reading the book of the new-Jerusalem poems from Kiev, and in the adjacent room three monks and a dog were eating: the two idiorrhythmic monks had already finished their dinner, and the painter Sevast Nikon was eating, as was his custom, later. Through the silence of the poems I was reading, I could tell that Nikon was chewing beef tongue that had been beaten against the plum tree outside to make it tender. When Nikon finished his meal, he sat down to paint, and, watching him prepare his colors, I asked him what he was doing.
" ‘It is not I who mix the colors but your own vision,’ he answered. ‘I only place them next to one another on the wall in their natural state; it is the observer who mixes the colors in his own eye, like porridge. Therein lies the secret. The better the porridge, the better the painting, but you cannot make good porridge from bad buckwheat. Therefore, faith in seeing, listening, and reading is more important than faith in painting, singing, or writing.’
"He took blue and red and placed them next to each other, painting the eyes of an angel. And I saw the angel’s eyes turn violet.
" ‘I work with something like a dictionary of colors,’ Nikon added, ‘and from it the observer composes sentences and books, in other words, images. You could do the same with writing. Why shouldn’t someone create a dictionary of words that make up one book and let the reader himself assemble the words into a whole?’
"Nikon Sevast then turned to the window, pointed with his brush to the field outside, and said:
" ‘Do you see that furrow? It is not a plow that made it. That furrow was made by the barking of a dog…’
"Then he thought for a moment and said to himself:
" ‘If I paint this way with my right hand when I am left-handed, just imagine how I would paint with my left hand!’ And he transferred the brush from his right hand to his left…
"Word of this immediately spread through all the monasteries, and everyone was horrified, convinced that Nikon Sevast had gone back to Satan and would be punished. Indeed, his ears again became as pointed as knives, and it was said that he could slice a piece of bread with his ear. But his talent remained the same; he painted just as well with his left hand as with his right, and nothing changed; the archangel’s anathema had not been carried out. One morning Nikon Sevast awaited the prior from the Monastery of the Annunciation, who was coming to arrange for Nikon to paint some altar doors. But no one arrived from the Monastery of the Annunciation that day or the following day. Then Sevast seemed to remember something, read his fifth ‘Our Father,’ which is recited to put the souls of suicides at peace, and set out for the monastery himself. There he found the prior in front of the church and, in keeping with his custom of calling others by his own name, inquired:
" ‘Sevast, Sevast, what is it?’ Without a word the old man led him into the cell and showed him an icon painter, as young as hunger can be, who was already painting the doors. Nikon stared at the paintings, shocked. The young man flapped his eyebrows like wings and painted just as well as Nikon. He was no better and no worse than he. And then Nikon understood the kind of punishment being meted out to him. It was also rumored that another young man as good as Nikon was working in the church at Prnjavor, and this proved to be true. Soon other mural and icon painters, some not even so young, began one by one to paint better and better; it was as if they had untied themselves from a pier and were setting out for the wide-open seas, and they began to catch up with Nikon Sevast, whom, until then, they had regarded as an unattainable ideal. And so the walls of all the monasteries in the ravine were illuminated and restored, and Nikon went back to the beginning, from his left hand to his right. Unable to bear it, he said:
" ‘What is the point of my being an icon painter like the rest? Now everyone can paint like me…’
"He discarded his brushes forever and never painted another picture. Not even on an egg. He wept all the colors from his eyes into the monastery mortar and departed from St. Nicholas Monastery with his assistant, Theoctist, leaving behind him the print of a fifth hoof."”
– Sevast, Nikon entry in Dictionary of the Khazars, Milorad Pavic (via adactivity)
ERNST HAECKEL, Kunstformen der Natur