History of the Maltese Cross and Its Meaning

Maltese cross
The Maltese Cross is an integral part of Malta's culture and heritage. The cross has four sides that are v-shaped, so it almost looks like a star. Each arm of the cross stands for justice, courage, prudence, and temperance respectively. Today, the cross is commonly used as an emblem for fire stations and in public service.

The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem introduced the symbol to Malta in 1530. The symbol is associated with the Knights of Malta (also called Knights Hospitallers). 

The Maltese cross is popular among public servants, especially fire fighters. For example, the Novato Fire District personnel currently use this symbol. This is a modern adaption of the original crusader insignia. Malta’s national airline, Air Malta, and Maltese Euro coins contain the Maltese Cross.

Background and Meaning of the Maltese Cross

The Maltese Cross is shaped like a four-pointed star with V-shaped arms. It also looks like four arrowheads converging and pointing inwards to form a cross-like shape.

For this reason, the Maltese cross is also known as an eight-pointed cross. The cross is symmetrical and drawn in black and white or red and white. The symbol is found in Malta’s coat of arms, buildings, jewelry, etc. 

Background and History

The symbol can be traced back to the Middle Ages during the Crusades. The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem ruled the islands from 1530 to 1798, and they pledged to defend the Holy Land. It soon took a role in militancy as the Knights of Malta fought alongside the Knights Templars.  

However, another variation of the symbol belongs to the 6th century BCE and was rooted in the Byzantine era. It was minted on coins from Amalfi, in Italy, and was first discovered in the 11th century.

Knights Hospitallers formally adopted the Maltese Cross in 1126. The cross became the symbol of a Christian Warrior. 

Maltese cross
The Maltese Cross (right) is commonly used as an emblem for fire departments (left).

Is Maltese Cross Catholic?

Yes, the Maltese Cross is Catholic and relates to broader Christianity as well. The Knights are considered one of the oldest warriors who fought for Christianity, and they also had a hospital in Jerusalem to take care of the pilgrims.

Since battle armor made it hard to distinguish one side from another, the Knights used the Cross of Calvary as their emblem. They considered it a holy battle to defend the Holy Land. 

When the Knights took over the islands of Malta, the catholic symbol became a part of the country’s heritage. The Maltese Cross symbolizes protection (a warrior who protects). That’s one reason firefighters in the United States use it. 

Why Is it Called a Maltese Cross?

The religious/military order in the Middle Ages widely used the Catholic cross. Since the Knights governed Malta and the islands for over three centuries, their symbol became associated with the land. The Catholic cross of protection became the Maltese Cross, representing the island of Malta. 

Over the years, the Maltese Cross appeared on churches, hospitals, palaces, canons, coins, jewelry, silverware, furniture, towers, entrances, and just about everywhere in Malta. Even the sports teams wear the Maltese Cross on their jerseys. The country and its people are proudly associated with the symbol. 

SymbolScholar Feature Images 87
Joseph Mbong, Professional Soccer Player

What Do the 4 Sides of the Maltese Cross Represent?

The four sides of the Maltese Cross get their significance from Christianity. They stand for justice, courage, prudence, and temperance. These meanings are attributed to the Catholic cross and began to represent the Maltese Cross as well. 

The Maltese Cross also stands for the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. This is an international organization for medical aid and humanitarian services. 

What Do the 8 Points on a Maltese Cross Mean?

The Maltese Cross has eight points or eight beatitudes, each showing the responsibility of the knights.

  • To live in truth
  • Have faith
  • Repent one’s sins
  • Give proof of humility
  • Love justice
  • Be merciful
  • Be sincere and whole¬≠hearted
  • To endure persecution

Over the years, the Maltese Cross began to represent the eight languages (tongues) of the noblemen. They had a specific order, as listed below: 

  • Auvergne
  • Provence
  • France
  • Aragon
  • Castille and Portugal
  • Italy
  • Baviere (Germany)
  • England (including Ireland & Scotland) 

The eight points of the Maltese Cross also symbolize eight characteristics, as listed below:

  • Observant 
  • Sympathetic 
  • Resourceful 
  • Dextrous 
  • Explicit 
  • Tactful 
  • Discriminating 
  • Persevering 

These are modern-day representations followed by the first-aiders associated with humanitarian organizations. 

Can Anyone Wear the Maltese Cross?

Technically, anyone can wear the Maltese Cross, but it’s not recommended. Unlike other ancient symbols, the Maltese Cross is currently a firefighter’s badge both in Malta and in the United States. The symbol has a special significance and stands for honor, bravery, and to protect others. 

The Maltese Cross isn’t considered a fashion statement because it has to be earned by the wearer. Don’t wear the symbol in public if you are not a firefighter or don’t belong to the fire department. It’s considered a sign of disrespect for those who sacrifice their lives to protect everyday citizens. 

Maltese cross
A depiction of the Maltese Cross

The Use of Maltese Cross by Firefighters 

The Knights of the Order of St. John had to fight the Saracens to protect the Holy Land. The Saracens (as called by the Byzantine Greeks) were Muslim Arabs. The Arabs used a lethal fire weapon to fight the knights and attack the pilgrims. They threw bottles filled with naphtha (an inflammable explosive) and lit them with a torch. This led to fire explosions. 

Many Crusaders were burnt alive when trying to save others from these fires. They were fighting fire spread by the Saracens. The Maltese Cross was awarded as a badge of honor to the Knights because it inspired many firefighters (in Malta and other countries) to adopt the symbol as their emblem. 

Maltese cross
Some firefighters wear a Maltese cross tattoo to honor their profession.

The Maltese Cross is directly associated with the Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitallers, and modern-day firefighters. It’s a symbol of bravery, protection, sacrifice, and honor, and it’s recognized and respected around the world. 

The Maltese Cross symbol has gained various meanings and associations over the years. However, it belongs to the people of Malta and is printed on many souvenirs crafted in the country.

If you found this article helpful, check out this post on the symbolic meaning of the Jerusalem cross.


Vanessa's liberal arts background has prepared her well for Symbol Scholar. A self-proclaimed theology nerd, Vanessa has interests in world religions, Reformation theology, history, and more. When she's not working, Vanessa enjoys spending time with her family, reading, exercising, and watching professional basketball.

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