The iconic eight-pointed cross is everywhere on the Maltese Islands, but what’s the story behind the legend?
From floor tiles to door knockers, jewellery to wrought iron gates, flags to Euro coins, and even the national airline Air Malta, the eight-pointed cross is as ubiquitous as the sun on this Mediterranean island. It is even the subject of an old music-hall joke. The very fact that the symbol has endured for centuries is a reflection of the immeasurable importance of the patrimony we inherited from the Knights of St John.
The eight-pointed cross has been associated with the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta (to give it its full name) since 1567, when it first appeared on the two Tarì and four Tarì copper coins of Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette (yes, him of Valletta fame). The geometric shape was not exactly a new design, as it can be found in different formats in Byzantine decorations dating back to the 6th century.
The eight points of the cross are not just a clever design feature. They have two symbolic meanings. First of all, they refer to the eight regions, or Langues, where the Knights hailed from: Auvergne, Provence, Aragon, Castille, Portugal, Italy, Germany and England.
They also refer to the eight obligations or aspirations of the Knights:
- to live in truth
- to have faith
- to repent one’s sins
- to give proof of humility
- to love justice
- to be merciful
- to be sincere and wholehearted
- to endure persecution
These days, the St John’s Ambulance, the Order’s main service organisation, has given a secular meaning to the eight points, representing the traits of a good first aider.
Did you know?
The Maltese Cross, in the form of four blurred rotor blades, was chosen as the most visible and effective way to mark a helipad in the US back in 1967. The pattern was used in military and civil heliports until the late 1970s, when it had to be changed on accusations that the Maltese Cross was anti-semitic.