The Maltese Cross – Origin and Symbolic Meaning

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The Maltese cross is a popular symbol, commonly found on medals of honor, coats of arms, architecture, jewelry, airlines and sports team. But what does it mean and why is it so popular? Here’s a look into this global symbol.

History of the Maltese Cross

The Maltese cross is steeped in history and politics, making its first notable appearance in the Middle Ages during the Crusades. It’s associated with the Knights Hospitallers, also known as the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem or the Knights of Malta, since 1567.

The organization was established during the Crusades to care for pilgrims in the Holy Land. Later on, it took on a more militant role, with the Hospitallers fighting alongside the Knights Templars. As the Knights Hospitallers stayed in Malta, the cross became known as the Maltese cross.

However, while the symbol is popular in connection to the knights, early variations can be traced back to the Byzantine era in the 6th century. The symbol is also known as the Amalfi cross, referring to the small coastal town of Amalfi, in Italy, where some believe it first emerged in the 11th century.

Air Malta

By Adrian Pingstone (Arpingstone) – Own work, Public Domain,

The Maltese cross features four v-shaped quadrilaterals, meeting at a single point in the center. The outer edge exhibits eight points and the overall shape looks like four arrows meeting in the middle.

The symbol can be found everywhere in Malta, on souvenirs, architecture, jewelry and retail items. It’s also the symbol of Air Malta and the Maltese sports teams.

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Meaning of the Maltese Cross

The eight points of the Maltese cross have many interpretations, connected to the Knights and to Christianity. However, today, the symbol has transcended these origins to represent universal concepts.

  1. The eight Langues (or regions) from where the Knights Hospitaller hailed, including: Provence, Aragon, Auvergne, Castille, Portugal, Italy, Germany and England.
  2. The eight points are also considered to represent the eight obligations or aspirations of the knights. These are:
    • To live in truth
    • To have faith
    • To repent of one’s sins
    • To be humble
    • To be just
    • To be merciful
    • To be sincere
    • To endure persecution
  3. For many Christians, the Maltese cross represents the eight beatitudes, recounted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, as outlined in the Gospel of Matthew.
  4. A modern meaning given to the Maltese cross has nothing to do with the knights. Instead, the eight points symbolize eight characteristics of a good first aider. These are:
    • Observant – note the causes and signs of the injury
    • Tactful – investigate the history of the case while winning the confidence of the patient and any others nearby
    • Resourceful – use available resources to manage the situation as best as possible
    • Dextrous – assist the patient without causing needless pain
    • Explicit – give clear instructions to the patient and bystanders to help the patient
    • Discriminating – assess the injuries and handle those that require immediate attention
    • Persevering – keep persevering with the assistance, even if it appears unsuccessful
    • Sympathetic – offer comfort to the patient and reduce suffering
  5. The Maltese cross symbolizes courage, honor and bravery, due to its associations with the Knights. It represents ‘fighting the good fight’. This is why the symbol is used around the world on medals of honor, in places such as Germany, Sweden, Poland and the Philippines. The Maltese cross is also a popular symbol for family crests and coat of arms.
  6. The Maltese cross is sometimes used as the symbol of fire departments. As such, it represents bravery and courage in the face of adversity, with the aim of protecting and fighting for others. According to legend, the Saracens fought the Knights with glass bombs of naphtha, which lit and burnt the Knights alive. The Knights bravely battled to douse the fires and save their comrades. This led to the link between the Knights and the Maltese cross with the fighting of fire.
Maltese cross meaning infographic
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Maltese Cross vs. Florian Cross

The Florian cross is often confused with the Maltese cross. It also has four components meeting at the center, with eight points, but the main difference is in the shape of the edges. While the Maltese cross has eight sharp points, the Florian cross has rounded edges.

It is the Florian cross, and not the Maltese cross, that’s typically used as the symbol of many fire departments.

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Maltese Cross Uses Today

The Maltese cross can be found on jewelry, clothing, decorative items like vases, carpets and wall hangings and is also a popular tattoo symbol. Its different interpretations means that it can be valued and appreciated by a wide range of people, even those not from the Christian faith.

The Maltese cross is a staple in souvenir or gift shops in Malta, featured on a variety of local handicrafts and other products. Many who visit Malta bring back the Maltese cross as a souvenir of their travels.

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In Brief

Like many cross symbols, such as the Celtic cross and the Solar cross, the Maltese cross also has strong Christian connotations. However, today the symbol can be found everywhere, with modern associations that transcend religion and politics. It remains a popular symbol around the globe.

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