The Maltese Cross, in the familiar design we now know, made its appearance in the mid 1500s when the Knights were at Malta.
With some exceptions, all portrayals of the Cross of the Order become Maltese, even those portraying earlier figures and events in the Order. This is the beginning of the myth. So how and when was the Maltese Cross introduced into the Order?
The first evidence of the modern Maltese Cross appears on the 2 Tari and 4 Tari Copper coins of the Grand Master Jean de Vallette-Parisot (Grand Master 1557-1568). The 2 and 4 Tari Copper coins are dated 1567. This provides a date for the introduction of the Maltese Cross into the Order. For a period older forms of the Order’s Cross persisted such as that at the Dutch Commandery of Harderwijk.
In terms of any “time line” for the Order, the introduction of the modern form of the “eight pointed” Cross, with its straight geometrical lines, is post Great Siege of Malta. Fresh architectural input came from the building of Valletta. For example, any visitor to the Co-Cathedral of St John (built between 1573 and 1577) cannot escape the preponderance of examples of the new form of eight pointed cross (today known as the Maltese Cross) throughout the Cathedral. The chief buildings of the new city, also provide a celebration of the new cross. Researchers may not have to look much further, for the building of Valletta as being the genesis as providing the final form of the evolved cross of the Order.
What is certain is that the Maltese Cross was not adopted by the Order earlier than the mid sixteenth century and thus it can be accepted with historic accuracy that the cross known to be the Maltese Cross was introduced in use to the Order of St. John of Jerusalem during their time in Malta.
In the 15th century, the eight points of the four arms of the later called Maltese Cross represented the eight lands of origin, or Langues of the Knights Hospitaller: Auvergne, Provence, France, Aragon, Castille and Portugal, Italy, Baviere (Germany), and England (with Scotland and Ireland).
The four arms of the Cross represent the four cardinal virtues namely:
The eight points also symbolize 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
The Order teaches that the eight points of the cross represent the eight Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”