Last week we had a bit about Saint Florian, Catholic Saint of Fire Fighters. This week a look into the history of another overused and often misunderstood symbol, the Maltese Cross.
Most firefighters, if they even know what the cross might symbolize, tell a tale of crusading knights in ancient times putting down their weapons to fight fires. Oddly, only firefighters seem to tell this tale, while the historical community tells a different, much wider story about the symbol and those who wore it on their tunics, shields and later stamped it on their coins.
First a bit about the cross itself. The cross is eight-pointed and has the form of four “V”-shaped arms joined together at their tips, so that each arm has two points.This was originally the cross of Amalfi, a province in Italy, but was adopted by the Island of Malta’s future rulers in the 11th Century. It is said that the points of the star represent:
- Contempt of death
- Glory and honor
- Helpfulness towards the poor and the sick
- Respect for the church
This original cross was worn by a group of crusading knights called the Knights Hospitaller and was so named from a hospital built in Jerusalem around 1080 to care for those traveling to the Holy Land. This hospital was built on the site of the monastery of Saint John the Baptist which is why the Knights Hospitaller were also known as the Knights of Saint John.
In 1129 they were charged to not only care for the wounded but to also provide armed escort to crusaders and pilgrims. To bolster their numbers they were paired with the newly endorsed Knights Templar, some of the best fighters the western world had seen.
As these groups attacked the Saracens, or followers of the Muslim faith, they encountered many new weapons, most notably a pitch oil later called naphtha. This was catapulted into the ranks or stronghold, then lit from afar by arrow or flaming bale of straw. The fire would be fast and intense. The Knights of Saint John, charged by the Pope to protect and care for pilgrims, treated the victims of these attacks as well as other injuries at their field hospitals.
It was written later, by other orders, that while the Knights Templar were fearless in the face of attack, the Knights of Saint John were fearless in the face of the flames.
The modern cross, most often a four sided cross with rounded sides, resembles a Teutonic Cross rather than a Maltese Cross.
Perhaps geography is to blame.
The Knights Hospitaller did not come from Malta, they were given the island by Charles the 5th of Spain, also the King of Sicily, after seven years of moving around Europe. It was here they transformed what they originally called a bare rock of sand into a thriving Mediterranean port which would repel a Turkish attack in the 1500s.
And of course some of the first structures built were hospitals.
So where did the 8 point cross of Saint John become the modern Maltese cross available for free embroidery on suitcases? Probably the same way Santa Claus became part of Christmas.(No I’m not saying Coca Cola made the cross) We could figure it out but would that ruin it? Perhaps.
But I imagine if a Knight Templar and a Knight of Saint John were transported into modern day America, they would see a Maltese Cross on a firehouse and know they would be welcomed, cared for and amongst family.