Today’s post is about the Maltese cross, a variation of the cross symbol that you might be very familiar with if you have a firefighter in your family or circle of friends. Without further ado, here is everything you should know about the Maltese cross, including the story of its origin, meaning and symbolism behind it as well as the modern uses of the symbol.
The Maltese Cross’s Origin: The Order of Saint John Also Known As The Knights of Malta
As one of the most recognizable types of crosses, especially in Europe, the Maltese cross has its roots going back to Jerusalem of the 1100s.
In the 11th century, Italian Amalfi merchants established a hospital in Jerusalem, on a monastery site dedicated to John the Baptist.
Influenced by the Cluniac movement, the hospital became an infirmary. Its initial purpose involved caring for Christian pilgrims that traveled to the Holy Land.
Towards the end of the 11th century, the First Crusade was started in response to the disruptive expansion of the Seljuk Turks. As a result, the system that provided aid to pilgrims was militarized. Thus, the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of Saint John was born.
The Order of Saint John, alongside the Knights Templar, became one of the most powerful Holy Orders in the region, playing a significant role in the Crusades that followed.
The Order was led by a Grand Master who was usually under the strong influence of the Pope.
However, the Kingdom of Jerusalem fell into the hands of Saladin in 1291. In the following years, the Order began a series of relocations.
The Knights settled in Tripoli, Cyprus, and Rhodes, where they fought off Islamic, Byzantine and Greek forces, as well as forces of other European states and Barbary pirates.
Following the siege of Rhodes by the Ottomans in 1522 (descendants of the Seljuk Turks), the Knights were eventually expelled to Malta around 1530.
Pope Clement VII was able to broker a deal with Charles V of Spain, who bequeathed to the Knights, the regions of Malta, Gozo, and the North African port of Tripoli as part of their fiefdom. In exchange, the Knights would gift Charles V one Maltese falcon each year.
The Knights successfully rebuffed an attack from the Ottomans on Malta in 1565 and extended their rule over the island until the invasion of Napoleon in 1798.
The Order continued to support military expeditions of the papacy, including the historic Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
The Maltese Cross: Meaning And Symbolism
The first instance where the Maltese cross is found in its eight-pointed form would be on the Tarì copper coins of the Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valet, dating back to 1567.
There have been various interpretations regarding the meaning of the Maltese Cross.
Some argue that the eight points of the Maltese cross represent the eight langues of the Knights of Malta. Those included parts of Auvergne, Aragon, Castille, Leon and Portugal, England, Baviere, and Italy that were under the control of the Knights.
The term ‘langue’ means the ethno-linguistic division of the possessions and members of the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of Saint John.
Others indicate that the meaning of the Maltese cross relates to the eight obligations of the Knights Hospitallers. These included living in truth, having faith, showing mercy, repenting, having humility, being modest, withstanding persecution, and loving justice.
These obligations can also present a different version of the Eight Beatitudes of Jesus. These were blessings based on the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke.
The Beatitudes state how living a righteous life and persevering through suffering and hardship can open the gates to eternal life in heaven.
The Maltese Cross As The Symbol of Firefighters
During the Crusades, the knights of the Order of Saint John often had to fight off the Saracens, a name given to mainly Muslim Arabs by Byzantine Greeks.
The Saracens had developed a new lethal weapon to combat the Crusaders. They would throw glass bottles of naphtha (highly flammable hydrocarbon mixture) and proceed to light them up with torches.
Many soldiers tried to save their compatriots from being burnt alive, acting as the first ‘firefighters’ of the Order. To acknowledge their bravery, they were often given a badge of honor.
As the badge mostly included the emblem of the Maltese cross, the symbol also influenced the badge that contemporary Maltese firefighters wear today. It bears a ladder escaping death, forming the eight corners of the Maltese Cross.
This, however, did not end with the Maltese firefighters. The Maltese cross became a common symbol used by the fire departments all around the world.
Representing the courage, determination and strength of the firefighters, you can now see the Maltese cross on the emblems of fire departments in countries from all corners of the world.
The Maltese Cross: Other Modern Uses
The Order of Saint John has been criticized throughout history for not adhering strictly to its monastic values.
Sometimes the Knights were seen to dress a little more extravagantly than necessary, a sign of accumulating wealth. Also, different figures expressed concerns over such elite military groups making their own laws to govern their operations.
Nevertheless, the allure around the Order of Saint John remains, focusing specifically on their early roots of valor and philanthropy.
For instance, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta exists today as a non-profit organization providing humanitarian aid.
Moreover, the Saint John Ambulance organization has transformed the meaning of the Maltese cross to encompass the characteristics of a good first aid worker.
These include being tactful, observant, resourceful, dextrous, discriminating (able to prioritize injuries), explicit, sympathetic, and persevering.
Today, the Maltese cross can be found all across Malta, especially in Valetta, as the Knights sought to revitalize the arts and solidify their legacy. Consequently, the symbol can be seen on tapestries, paintings, engravings, coins, furniture, coats-of-arms, hospitals, and, of course, churches.
As one of the most recognizable symbols of Malta, it has also become a common symbol in business. It is the logo of the airline company Malta Air as well as the icon for the country’s banner for its football and rugby teams.
The symbol can be found also across Europe, as the Order of Saint John became an important chess piece of international diplomacy throughout the centuries.
As a result, you can see the Maltese cross used by medical, scientific and aviation communities, as well as militaries and governments in countries such as Italy, Spain, France, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the Netherlands in addition to some other European and non-European countries.
This wraps up our post on the Maltese cross, its meaning and symbolism. If you liked reading it, you will probably enjoy reading our piece on the Petrine cross/the upside down cross here.
If you would like to read about another cross symbol used by the crusaders, you might also want to check out the extensive article we have on the Jerusalem cross/the Crusader cross here. Thanks for reading with us!