The Maltese cross is one of the most popular symbols that have been around for a very long time. Today, as the next part of our journey into the world of symbols, we will take a detailed look into the Maltese cross symbol, its meaning, history and origins as well as its various uses in the modern world.
What is a Maltese Cross ? How Does the Maltese Cross Sign Look?
The Maltese cross is a star-like figure that has become a rudimentary element in Malta’s culture and heritage. It was first introduced to the country more than 400 years ago when the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (also known as the Knights of Malta or the Knights Hospitallers) took possession of the island in 1530.
The symbol consists of four arrowheads whose narrow edges are joined together at the base. The four V-shaped arms are concave quadrilaterals connected with each other at right angles in such a way that the tips pointing outward form a ‘flower-like’ cross with eight-pointed edges. The Maltese cross sign can be viewed as a fancier version of the renowned Greek cross.
The Maltese cross is usually seen in a combination of black and white, or red and white colors (black or red cross against a white background and vice versa).
The symbol is symmetric in shape regardless of whether it is viewed horizontally or vertically.
The History of the Maltese Cross Symbol – How It Came to Be Used in the Firefighter Emblem
Although the use of the Maltese cross was popularized in the 16th Century during the rule of the Knights Hospitallers, it dates as far back as the early 11th Century.
The roots of the Maltese cross symbol lie in the Crusader crosses. It was originally the symbol of the Republic of Amalfi (located on Italy’s southwest coast). The cross was associated with the symbol of the Christian warrior, although its overall shape was slightly different than the Maltese cross as we see nowadays (the arrowheads had a relatively wider base than the current Maltese cross symbol).
The origin of the Maltese cross can be traced to a group of courageous monks who served at a hospice that was constructed to assist the pilgrims who visited the Holy Land. With the passage of time, the monks also started helping the Knights of the Crusades in addition to offering armed escorts to people traveling through the disputed territories.
Soon, these ‘brothers of St. John’ evolved into a military order, calling themselves the ‘Knights of St. John’ or the Knights Hospitallers instead. On the battlefield, these Knights were forced to fight fire – quite literally.
The enemy, Saracens, had created bombs filled with a flammable mixture called naphtha. As a result, the Knights found themselves struggling to extinguish ravenous fires. They had to risk their lives to save their comrades and fellow fighters trapped in the flames. The only problem was that the dense smoke made it difficult to identify other Knights, and separate them from the enemy.
Therefore, to combat this issue, the Knights turned to using the Cross as an identification mark on their armors. They used the Cross of Cavalry to denote the noble cause for which they were fighting. However, they stylized it slightly so that it would be immediately visible at a glance. And this is how the emblem which would later be known as the Maltese cross sign came into existence.
Various Meanings of the Maltese Cross Symbol
The four arms of the Maltese cross represent the four Cardinal Values, i.e. prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.
As for the total of eight points on these four V-shaped arms, it is believed that they symbolize the eight obligations or aspirations of the knights.
These obligations are as follows:
- To live life in truth
- To be merciful
- To repent for one’s sins
- To give proof of humility
- To love justice
- To have faith
- To be sincere and wholehearted
- To endure persecution
It is also believed that the eight edges denote the eight languages or rather, refer to the eight medieval nations whose noblemen were a part of the famed Order of St. John.
These nations include:
- Castille and Portugal
- Baviere (Germany)
- England (with Scotland and Ireland)
For the modern-day first aiders serving in the Order of St. John, the eight corners of the Maltese cross signify their eight special characteristics or ‘beatitudes’ as they are often called. These traits are as follows:
Modern Uses of the Maltese Cross
Needless to say, the Maltese cross is a dominant symbol in Malta. It is featured on the Maltese Euro coins, as well as used in the livery of Air Malta, the country’s flagship air transportation service.
The Sovereign Military Order of Malta continues using this cross as its symbol to date. It is an international organization dedicated to providing humanitarian aid in the form of ambulance services, firefighters, medical staff, and the likes.
The interesting thing is that the Maltese cross sign is not just used as an emblem for the local firefighters, but also for those in several other parts of the world. Given that its origin lies in the heroic firefighting acts of the Knights, the cross is viewed as a symbol of courage, bravery, strength, and determination. The original Maltese cross firefighter’s symbol along with its variations are thus displayed on the coats of firemen in several countries.
If you visit Malta, you will also see the cross incorporated in the stonework on various houses. It is used in the logo of many local institutions such as the Malta Tourism Authority and of course, it is also a part of the official sports uniform for the national rugby and football teams.
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