An Icon from an Alternate Universe

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Sasha and the emperor, at Icon Gallery.

We arrived in Corfu late in the evening of the 12th of September and had about fifteen minutes of worry when the agent of the apartment’s owner was not present to meet us at the airport, as promised. And I had neglected to get his number!

But I did have the number for Yannis, the owner, who lives in Athens, and I called him. He promised to call Nikos, the agent. Soon he called back to say that Nikos had car problems but would soon be in touch, which he was. Before too long Nikos arrived — on a Vespa — got us a taxi, and we were off.

He showed us the apartment, gave us the keys, and said that he would be back inthe late morning to collect the rent (assuming we liked the place — which we did) and give us a quick tour of the neighborhood.

“At home” at last, but too jittery to sleep, we took a walk through part of Corfu’s old town, quickly locating Sasha Chaitow’s Icon Gallery, where something was waiting for me.

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Juiian holding his “Hymn to King Helios”

When Sasha, whom I knew via the American Academy of Religion and The Pomegranate, opened the gallery, I commissioned an icon from her. Not another John the Baptist or St. Spyridon — but the last Roman Pagan emperor, done in the Byzantine style that evolved in later centuries.

She sent a preliminary sketch. We went back and forth by email — laurel wreath or imperial diadem? — and so on.

It came from a sort of a quickly fantasized alternative history, one in which Julian had not died in that cavalry skirmish with the Persians in 363 CE in what is now northern Iraq, but had lived and had succeeded in his quest to re-institute and reform the old Pagan practices, and become venerated after his death.

That’s my alternative history, and I’m sticking to it. The day after I arrived in Corfu, I was holding it in my hands. Now it hangs on the study wall, glowing.

Sasha holds an MA in Western esotericism from the University of Exeter and a PhD in myth and literature from the University of Essex, as well as being an accomplished painter. She takes commissions, and you can contact her through the gallery website, Facebook,, or LinkedIn.

7 thoughts on “An Icon from an Alternate Universe

  1. Wow… that is the most awesome thing I have ever seen. I would *very* much like to have one of these myself (original or copy) and to be able to offer copies of it through the Julian Society website. Any idea how this might be possible? Are you the “owner” of this Icon image now, or is it the painter?

    In any case thanks so much for posting about this!!

    -Marcus Cassius Julianus
    Founder of the Julian Society

    1. I would love to see more admirers of Julian commission their own icons. Corfu is full of sellers of printed Christian “icons” that are often just reproductions varnished onto wooden panels, whereas Sasha’s are each original.

  2. Medeina Ragana

    For my Early Middle Ages Art History course I took way back in 2007(or maybe 2008 or 2009), I did a whole paper on the “history” of icons from the very beginning when Christians copied the idea from the Ancient Egyptian sarcophaguses to the Russian peak of icon painting in the 1400s. What shocked me was that the portrayal of the Virgin actually came from the portrayal of Auset (you know her by her Greek name which has been co-opted by a certain radical “religious” group in the Middle East whose name I shall not write) holding the child Horus. In fact one of the earliest representations actually show the Virgin with a cloak tied in the traditional “Ausetian” knot.
    That started me thinking that perhaps painting icons of other Gods/Goddesses might be a good idea, so I started working on that and have sketches, but it got put aside to deal with other activities of life.
    Your article now has given me impetus to finish that painting and maybe start on some others.
    Hope you’re enjoying your trip!

    1. What was fun in Corfu (formerly held by the Venetian Republic and never conquered by the Turks) was seeing the headlong collision of the severe Byzantine style with the 17th-century Italian Baroque in their religious art.

    2. Medeina Ragana

      Addendum to my comment: The Russians have a whole process of creating icons which include many magical aspects (although they’d deny this vehemanently!) which starts from the cutting down of the tree to make the panel on which the icon is to be painted, through the grinding of the chalk to make the gesso for preparing the panel, then on to the painting of the panel itself and when finished the blessing by the priest of the icon. At each step there are special prayers to be said by the individual doing the task. The priest’s blessings at the end culminate the “working”. Russians and Greek Orthodox believe that an actual piece of God or the Virgin or Saint is imbedded into the icon which is why they treat is so reverently with kisses etc.

      After some completely unrelated research I did in Mongolian shamanism, I realized that the Russian and Greek Orthodox icons were, in fact, a form of what the Mongolians call “ongons” or what Western magical traditions would call a “talisman” although in a much more intense manner.

      In the end, it obvious that all these religious traditions devolve from ancient pagan practices. I now find it amusing when conservative Christians are appalled at discovering the source of their customs.

      1. True, there is plenty of esoteric tradition in the Orthodox churches. What I saw in Corfu, however, and what you would probably see elsewhere too, was lots of identical, off-set printed icon pictures decoupaged onto wooden panels and/or partly covered with silver-colored metal — and then priced fairly high in shops with signage in Russian.

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