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Sovereign Military Order of Malta - The Maltese Cross

Last modified: 2003-04-19 by dov gutterman
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The Maltese Cross

by Zeljko Heimer, 8 June 2002

From the Malta and Gozo website:

The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem gave Malta the heritage of the Maltese Cross. The eight-pointed cross is a symbol used by the knights to denote the eight obligations or aspirations of the knights.

The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, now commonly known as the Knights of Malta, can trace their origin to a group of monks attached to a hospice built in the Holy Lands to aid travelers visting the Holy Land. The monks were known as the Freres Hospitaliers de St. Jean de Jerusalem. Over time, the monks started offering armed escort to travelers as they passed through perilous Syrian territory. Following the success of the First Crusade, the Hospitallers evolved into a military order.

Around 1113, Pope Pascal II acknowledged the Hospitallers as a religious order. They were bound by the Augustinian rules of Chastity, Poverty and Obedience. However, more was expected of the members of the Order. They were required to abide by eight obligations or aspirations. These eight obligations were:

  1. live in truth;
  2. have faith;
  3. repent of sins;
  4. give proof of humility;
  5. love justice;
  6. be merciful;
  7. be sincere and whole-hearted; and
  8. endure persecution.

Noble aspiration indeed especially for individuals who came from very rich and powerful European families. Members of the Order wore a black habit and a camel-hair cloak of the same colour. A white eight-pointed cross covered their breast. The eight-pointed cross was also on their standard against a scarlet background. Eventually, as the Knights became known as the Knights of Malta, their symbol also became associated with Malta and is now known as the Maltese Cross.

The Maltese Cross is a very cherished symbol of the Maltese people and the cross has become part of the Malta's heritage and culture. Many souvenirs are adorned by the Maltese Cross. The cross is also used in all kinds of jewelry including earrings, necklaces, bracelets, broaches, pendants and cuff-links.
Dov Gutterman and Lewis A. Nowitz, 15 April 1999

Extracts from the St John Ambulance Australia Cadet Manual (3rd Edition) :

The eight-pointed cross first became the badge of the Order in the year 1023 when the Knights of St John rebuilt their hospital in Jerusalem with funds donated by the merchants of the Republic of Amalfi. In gratitiude for this support, the Knights adopted the emblem of the Republic as their own badge. The origin of the symbol is not known - one idea is that it represents four arrowheads.
The whiteness of the cross symbolises the purity of life. The St John cross is often referred to as the 'eight-pointed cross', the 'White Cross' and the 'Maltese Cross'...
The Knights Hospitallers flag and battle dress emblem was a large  white cross on a red background. The other famous military order, the Knights Templar wore a red cross on a white background until they were disbanded and their property and wealth passed to the Knights Hospitaller.
Jonathan Dixon 24 September 1999

The cross on the flag is known by several names, including the Maltese cross, the St John cross and the 8-pointed cross. Concering it's similarity to four arrowheads, in fact this is what it is thought to have originally been when it was the badge of the Republic of Amalfi. When the Order of St John was formed during the Crusades with the support of Amalfi, they also took it as their badge, and since the Order's occupation of Malta, it has also been known as the Maltese Cross.
Jonathan Dixon, 14 June 2000

The two shapes of crosses don't present a case of evolution form one to the other. The 'elongated Iron Crosses', the sort of thing that in the Templar case gave rise to the St George's Cross of England, were used by both the Templars and the Hospitallers as their banners and arms. I havent' come across anything about the white-on-black to white-on-red change of the Hospitallers, but several orders with some sort of descent from the Hospitallers use the 'inverted English flag' in some form to this day. At the same time, both then and now, the eight-pointed Maltese, or St John Cross was used as a badge. It actually originated as the badge of the republic of Amalfi, and quite possibly was not originally a cross, but an emblem made up of four arrowheads. It was adopted by the Brotherhood of the Hospital in Jerusalem (even before the foundation of the Order) when the merchants of Amalfi re-purchased the site of the hospital established around 600AD and rebuilt it. At the formation of the Order (formally recognised in 1113), the monks wore black robes with the eight-pointed cross on the left breast. It seems correct to understand that the white cross on red was mainly used by the Knights of the Order in their military activities, and the eight-pointed cross while at the convent.
No doubt the use of the two symbols over the many years since varied, and was most likely at many times not well defined, I guess, but there is a lot of evidence of the use of both during the time when the Order of St John had one of the strongest naval fleets of the Mediterranean, when the use of the eight-pointed, or as it became known, Maltese Cross on a red background became more common as a flag. I guess the modern Maltese civil ensign can be seen as a result of this.
In the 19th century, when Orders of Chivalry were a popular thing among many classes, the English Langue, or Tongue, of the Order was revived in England (having been eliminated in the time of Henry VIII and the following monarchs). This is the part of the history where I have come across many different interpretations, as this was at the time when the Order was least organised, having been driven from Rhodes by Napoleon. The current Sovereign Military Order of Malta is probably the most valid direct descendant of the original order, but this is the time where there is the most doubtful continuity. The English Langue was revived in the authority of a Frnech group who claimed authority over the Sovereign Order at the time, but the Lieutenant Master later refused the acceptance of the proposed Protestant Priory in the Catholic Order. So, not being accepted as part of the international order, an English order of chivalry was formed independently in Britain, using the symbols of the order dating back to the crusades. The British order was later granted a royal charter by Queen Victoria, and the Monarch of England became the Sovereign Head of the Order. This lead to the addition of the lions and unicorns (the Queen's beasts) to the eight-pointed cross badge, and the addition of the Queen's Crest to first quarter of the white cross on red flag. In the meantime, the Order had been workign to continue the tradition of the Hospitallers, who had also had a focus on Hospitals, as well as being a military order, and had established the StJ Ambulance Association (teaching first aid), Brigade (doing first aid as an organised brigade) and established a hospital in Jerusalem, focussing on ophthalmology. The Order's full name is now "The Grand Priory of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem".
The work of the Order and it's foundations, particularly the Association and Brigade spread throughout the British Realm. The Association and Brigade (in Australia since 1987 called the Training Branch and Operations Branch) continued to use the Maltese Cross with lions and unicorn badge, whereas the white cross on red (with Queen's Crest) flag remains a symbol of the Order itself (which also now has Priories in many, mainly Commonwealth, countries). In Australia, the Ambulance services in general have taken up the eight-pointed cross, and so most people would associate it with ambulance services, and possibly with first aid. It is not surprising that the state ambulance services use the "Ambulance Cross", since the ambulance service is actually run by St John in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, and were at one stage in NSW and South Australia. I have also heard, but have my doubts, that the Tasmanian service is now run by St John.
Jonathan Dixon, 26 June 2001

I don't think there's precise documentation or even consensus on the topic of the development of the Maltese Cross. Most people seem to agree, though that it started in Jerusalem as a cross with on each arm a tips on each corner. Later forms seem to have added more and more body to the outer parts of the arms and the tips.
There is, however, also a theory that it isn't a cross at all, but a version of the emblem of Amalfi . The problem with this is that, since that emblem consists of entirely separate arrow-heads, one would expect all older illustrations of the cross to look like very arrows-like crosses, if crosses at all, which they don't.
What appears to be clear, though, is that the Templars took up the symbol already in use by the Hospitallers. So both orders had an eight-pointed cross (well, all orders to Jerusalem probably had), but the Templars wore it over their heart, or over their shoulder, whereas the Hospitalers wore the cross on their chest. There must have been some differences in colour, though, since the Hospitalers wore black, where the Templars wore white. I don't know how all this translates into their standards, though. Of course, if the cross did indeed develop over the centuries, then the eight-pointed cross of the Templars would not have been a cross of Malta, since they were destroyed when they left Cyprus, long before the Hospitallers on Cyprus, then Rhodes, then Malta, developed the current version of the cross.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 27 June 2001

The Hospitallers, the Templars, and the Teutonic Knights were all originally Crusading Orders, but with the fall of Acre in 1291, effectively lost their raison-d'etre, and ended up wandering around Europe. The Hospitallers, or Knights of St John of the Hospital, were originally a group which cared for weary pilgrims at the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem.  After their incorporation as a military order, they continued to run the hospital, which gained them respect and prestige.  After the fall of Acre in 1291, they moved first to Cyprus, then to the island of Rhodes (Rhodos) in 1307, then Malta in 1522-23.  Their symbol was originally (1248) a white cross on black, changed in 1259 to a white cross on red.
The Templars, or Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon, were originally a group which escorted and protected pilgrims while they were travelling through the Seljuk lands.  They lived in a hostel near the Temple of Solomon, thus the name "Templars".  They had many estates in Europe, and once Acre fell in 1291, retired to their European estates, and became involved in banking and diplomacy, which made them unpopular, to the point where King Philippe the Just of France burnt the Grand Master and two senior officers at the stake for supposed heresies.  In 1312, Pope Clement V issued a decree suppressing the Order.  Their symbol was a red cross on white.
As to the shapes of these crosses, the cross of the Hospitallers may have evolved into the present-day shape of the "Maltese Cross", but as to the Knights Templar, and the earlier Hospitallers, I've found that the shapes can be said to be "elongated" Iron Crosses.
Georges G. Kovari, 27 June 2001

The circle circumscribing the cross (red circle above) defines a regular octogon (dark blue). The beams from the center of the circle to the vertexes of the octongon define the bars of the cross. The indentation is half the side of the octogon, i.e. on a circle (black).
Zeljko Heimer, 8 June 2002