Saint Javelin is unlike any other saint. She is draped in army green, her blue halo features Ukraine’s golden trident, and she embraces the anti-tank missile after which she’s named.
She’s not a real saint, of course, but is still recognized around the world, as her image has for the past year and a half appeared across social media and on thousands of stickers and items of clothing.
At a time when people around the world want to show their support for Ukraine, or influence public opinion about the war, Saint Javelin is just the type of simple, striking image that can communicate immediately and effectively.
Although inspired by another image – one of the Virgin Mary holding a Kalashnikov, created by U.S. artist Chris Shaw – the originator of Saint Javelin is unknown. But Torontonian Christian Borys saw the meme as an opportunity to raise funds in support of Ukrainians.
Mr. Borys, 37, who previously worked in customer support for Shopify and as a journalist in Ukraine, put the image of Saint Javelin onto a sticker and began selling them at $10 a pop.
He was immediately overwhelmed with orders, but that was nothing compared to what would soon come. On Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, sales surpassed $50,000. Two days later, the total exceeded $250,000.
“I think we ended up getting a flood of people online who just wanted to do something in those first few days and they found us,” he said.
So far, he’s donated $2-million in support of Ukraine, and has established a social enterprise along the way.
That business, also called Saint Javelin, now has 10 permanent staff and continues to evolve. And in the process, Mr. Borys and his colleagues keep the war top of mind, just as they have since it began.
“Along with so many Ukrainian soldiers who were doing TikTok dances … we just curated what was happening and showed the Western audience,” he said.
The roots of Saint Javelin go back to 2012, which is when Mr. Shaw’s painting of the Madonna wielding a Kalashnikov – created in response to the Arab Spring – was exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
After that, says Mr. Shaw, the image itself started to flutter around online and “started having a life of its own, for better or worse.”
Mr. Shaw said he first noticed the Madonna Kalashnikov image being bootlegged on shirts and other products in Eastern Europe in 2014, including in Ukraine, where someone had put the image onto patches.
Years later, someone replaced the Kalashnikov with the Javelin, he said, and named that version Saint Javelin.
“She kind of had another strange little life under the radar until the Russian invasion,” he said. “I came across her in February, saw her on shirts and saw Christian’s sticker campaign, and that’s how we met,” he said.
The two of them began working together, with Mr. Shaw painting six icons of Saint Javelin. One was recently on display at the World War One Museum in Kansas City, Mo., and five were set aside to be auctioned. Two have raised more than $100,000.
More than $1-million of profits raised by Mr. Borys were donated to the Ukrainian World Congress, and $350,000 went to United24, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s initiative. Other funds have gone toward a range of efforts, including ones providing protective equipment for journalists and pickup trucks that supported evacuation efforts and the military.
Mr. Shaw said Madonna Kalashnikov and Saint Javelin share the same purpose. “It’s a switch of a weapon, but what she stands for is the same: freedom from oppression, for democracy and not getting ruled by the Russians.”
Ultimately, though, Saint Javelin represents something different to everyone, he said, explaining that some people have told him they have a spiritual connection to her and others have called her a protector. He’s also received hate mail from people who are offended by it.
In May, 2022, after a mural of Saint Javelin was painted on the side of a residential building in Kyiv, her halo was painted over by someone else.
Mr. Borys has had people tell him their priests love it and wear the T-shirt. He’s also been told it’s sacrilegious. “I had to learn very quickly to just brush that off,” he said. Mr. Shaw said he understands the image doesn’t sit well with everyone, but that she’s not meant to be blasphemous. He pointed out that putting weapons into the hands of religious figures is not new.
Graham Broad, a professor of History at King’s University College at Western University, confirms that the use of religious symbols and war imagery dates back to the beginning of warfare. “I think the reason it does and we see it in warfare throughout antiquity is because everybody claims that God’s on their side – or the gods or whatever their gods happen to be,” he said.
Lara Zwarun, an associate professor at the department of communication and media at the University of Missouri-St. Louis said that, as someone who follows the war in Ukraine, she was aware of Saint Javelin and appreciated the ability of its message to be easily grasped.
The afternoon The Globe and Mail visited Saint Javelin’s office, Dr. Zwarun and a co-researcher were present working on a project studying Saint Javelin – including its viral spread, the combination of religious iconography and weapons, and the Ukrainian diaspora’s response.
“In this day and age of people being distracted and inundated by information, they are hard to grab and get to learn or process anything,” she says. “So Saint Javelin has done a brilliant job of having striking imagery that jumps out at people and gets them in the feels without requiring a lot of mental effort.”
While the war is being fought on the battlefield, she added, it’s also fought on social media for public opinion.
“We want people to ‘stand with Ukraine.’ And I think that’s where the imagery comes in, accomplishing that in a way that lets people express their support, feel like they are somehow contributing (and letting them show off that they are), and also providing them social currency to ‘trade’ in online spaces,” she said.
And for those who work for Mr. Borys’s company, it’s meant even more.
Violetta Petrova, a 25-year-old Ukrainian who does marketing for Saint Javelin in Toronto, said working at the company has been crucial for her while living abroad.
“This allows me to feel like I retain this connection with my country, and it also allows me to help,” she said.