History of the Maltese Cross,
as used by the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

© Copyright 2004 The Reverend Dr Michael Foster.


Whilst the history of the Order has gained the attention of a good number of historians, there has been no real critical appraisal on when and how the eight-pointed Maltese Cross was introduced into the Order of St John of Jerusalem. This is a matter which has escaped the attentions of those otherwise respected as academics, who by failing to investigate this aspect, continue to allow myth to replace historical reality.

Defining what we mean by the "Maltese Cross".
For the purposes of this article, the Maltese Cross is defined as;
"a cross of made from four straight lined pointed arrowheads , meeting at their points, with the ends of the arms consisting of indented 'v's".

Given this description, no seal, painting, or drawing which concerns the Order, that is not anachronistic (i.e. produced later, to represent an earlier period), before the mid-late 1500s, portrays the now familiar eight pointed cross.

History questioned.
Edwin J King raises the question of historical inaccuracies, commenting on an article by Alison Phillips in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which states that the Maltese Cross was introduced at the inception of the Order. King writes "I know not his authority for stating that the eight-pointed cross was adopted at so early a date. Canon Giraud in his Life of the Blessed Gerard states that in his day the Hospitallers used an ordinary Latin cross, and that Raymond du Puy introduced the eight-pointed cross, but gives no authority for his statement." #1.

Fortunately, King has provided further insights to the problem in his published research on the Seals of the Order, which provides examples of the various forms of the crosses used by the Order, throughout the centuries #2.


The Cross on the original Great Seal of the Convent of St John in Jerusalem is the True Cross (depicted in image as a Patriarchal Cross), which adds an upper crossbar (inscription-plate) #3. The arms of the cross are slightly fluted. The Patriarchal Cross may have been the initial form of Cross used by the Order.
Some evidence of the first form of cross is given by Elias Ashmole writing about the Knights Templar in 1715; "Their Habit was white, to which, in the time of Eugenius III they added the Red Cross, and of the same Form that the Hospitallers wore (Favin says a Patriarchal Cross) and sowed it on the left shoulder of the Maulles" #4. The depiction of devotion to the True Cross, is also one found on coins of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and may only have been an image to depict that the Order was "of Jerusalem".

fig. 1.

Great Seal of the Convent.


The early use of a Cross.

If the Patriarchal Cross was the first form of cross, then it soon gave way to an equally early form of cross used by the Order, that of the Cross Formée (a Greek Cross with fluted arms). This cross can be seen on the wall of the stairs leading to the chapel within the Krak des Chevaliers which was the Syrian Castle of the Hospitallers from 1144 to 1271.

A good example of early forms of the cross are provided by the two seals of the Oxford Hospital circa 1234 and later. These are in the form of Cross Formée and Pattée Formée, both with Fitch at Foot (fig. 2.) #5. Other examples are to be found in King #6.

fig. 2.

Crusader State Coins.
In examining coins and seals of the Grand Masters of Rhodes and Malta, the researcher can note that there is no consistency of design. Some crosses on the coins of the Grand Masters of Rhodes and Malta from the 14th and 15th Centuries, are indeed eight pointed but are variations of the Cross Moline, Cross Potent with chamfered ends. Cross Formée or Cross Pattée, the latter two stylised with concave ends and/or extended points. For example a half gros of Fulk of Villaret portrays a Cross Moline. An asper of Peter of Aubusson also portrays a Cross Moline. However a text separator on the same coin is a stylised Cross Formée, looking more like the familiar Maltese Cross.


As to the early written descriptions of an eight pointed cross, these could include Cross Moline, Cross Ancrée, Formée Pattée, a stylised Cross Formée or Cross Pattée, or Cross Branchée/ Fichée. Such versions of the cross were depicted in use by the Order prior to the sixteenth Century. In surveying the evidence of the forms of crosses used by the Order in Rhodes and in the early period at Malta, we must take note that the designs to be found on the Order's coinage were not exclusive to the Order, and that such crosses are to be found on the coins of other Crusader states. For example a Christian Arabic dinar or bezant of Acre 1257, which from the cross portrayed, could be argued as a Maltese Cross coin! The image seems to be a combination of a Cross Formée and a Cross Moline, but are almost identical to that on the gigliats of Helion de Villeneuvre, a Grand Master of Rhodes 1319-1346. Similar designs are to be found on Coinage from the Principality of Antioch, Lordship of Sidon, Cilician Armenia, Duchy of Athens, Lordship of Chios (a striking example is that of a quarter-gigliato prior to 1466).

fig. 3.

The Seal of the Priory of Manosque, France 1216. Note the Cross Moline, both as a text separator and as the main image. This provides an early example of an eight pointed cross in use by the Order, which is certainly not a Maltese Cross.

fig. 4.

The influence of Amalfi.
One correspondent to the Sunday Times of Malta, the late Tony Borg-Cardona writes; "The display of crosses on coins of the Grand Masters in these centuries does not differ significantly from crosses on the coins of the Crusading States in the same period....This then brings us to question the claimed Amalfi origins, and to ask which ancient authority first made the claim, and whether the claim now needs to be revised?" #7.

The coin used by the Amalfitans in their commercial exchanges was the Tari. The word Tari meant freshly minted. The coins were 12 carat and were made of equal parts of gold and silver mixed with a small quantity of copper. As far back as the 11th century Amalfi issued gold Tari from its own mint.
One one side of the Tari there is an emblem, which is given to be the source of the eight pointed cross (fig. 5.). Four 'v's in square formation, are supplemented with a globe in the open arms of the 'v's. From a sight of the coin, the dependence of the Order's evolving cross on the Tari is far from conclusive, and can be discounted, especially as the Order appears to have used the Cross Formée in the 12th and 13th centuries.

fig. 5.

Almafi Tari 11th Century

The Evidence from Rhodes - The Rhodian Cross.
A Rhodian Coin circa 1319-1360 (fig. 6.) provides an image much like that on the Seal of the Priory of Manosque, France of 1216. It is most likely that the coin is early 14th Century rather than late 14th Century. This Cross Moline of the Order (if it was in regular use) was eventually displaced by a variant of the Cross Formée with a concave  or "v" ends, as witnessed by the artwork which emerged after the Seige of 1480.


fig. 6. Rhodian Coin dated circa 1319-1360


Following the Order's successful survival of the 1480 Siege of Rhodes, Guillaume Caoursin produced an illuminated work on the history of the siege. The cross portrayed on the mantles of the Knights, is almost akin to a modern Maltese Cross, if somewhat irregular (fig. 7.). The date of the work is around 1482-1489 #8. What seems to be portrayed by Caoursin, is a Cross Formée with wide ends, which have been ancerated, following the form of a Cross Moline. The coloured versions show evidence of being retouched. The cross fails to follow the contours of the robes. Compare for example, the original etchings of the same period drawn by Caoursin.  It is these woodcuts which lay behind the illuminations. These provide a Cross Formée Branchée/ Fichée - a Greek Cross, ancerated with 'v's cut into the ends #9 (fig. 8.). This Cross can be termed the Rhodian Cross.

If any retouching of the illuminations is discounted then Caoursin's work does not appear to be consistent. However defending the originality of the cross detail in the illuminations, is a 1304 illumination from the Liber Indulgentiae showing a similar design to that found in Caoursin's Siege of Malta. Yet other drawings of the Knights in the same period show a Cross Moline/Cross Ancrée #10.

fig. 7.

Detail from MS Lat. 6067
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
Entertaining Sultan Zizim in Rhodes.

fig. 8.

Detail from a Caoursin etching

Confirming the detail in the etching of Coursin (of the Rhodian Cross), is a woodcut, and although of the late 16th Century (i.e. when the Knights were in Malta), it portrays a Knight of Rhodes, where the cross's ancerated ends are very modest (fig. 9.) #11. A contemporary confirmation is found on the wall of Bodrum Castle dated to 1510 (fig. 11) #12. The Rhodian Cross persisted in the beginning period of the Knights new home in Malta, as late as the mid 1500s, as evidenced on a coin of Grand Master Sengle (fig. 12.). We can conclude that whilst the Rhodian Cross appears to be the form that was used in the 15th Century onwards, some artwork depicting the Order's crosses of that period, suggest a less consistent picture. We cannot discount that the brush of the Artist may have stumbled accidentally on the modern design!

fig. 9.

Arms of Pierre d'Aubusson
fig. 10.

Photograph credit: François Velde,
http://www.heraldica.org/

In Rhodes, the Arms of Pierre d'Aubusson are portrayed at the gate Aghiou Athanasiou.
The Arms have a griffon and a lion regardant as supporters.  The cross is a Cross Ancrée. Beneath part of the legend is readable: "DIVUS F[ra] PETRUS DAUBUSSON RHODIORUM MAGNUS MAGISTER and on the lower line, the date 1486 (MCDVXXXVI).

Shield with Rhodian Cross
found on the Walls of
Bodrum Castle, Turkey #12.
fig. 11.

"The arms Rhodian had almost, but not quite, achieved the straight lined sharp arrowhead appearance, noted from the mid 16th century onwards."


The Arms of Peter d'Aubusson (fig. 10.) may have influenced the evolving cross of the Order. D'Aubusson continued as Grand Master until 1503, with continued evidence of the use by the Order of the ancerated Cross Formée, and the Cross Ancrée. For example coins of the period display the Cross Ancrée, such as the asper and billon denier. A denier issued under Grand Master Emeric d'Amboise provides a Cross Moline. The Cross Moline and Cross Ancrée were stylised Greek crosses, with the ends dividing, tapering, and leading off, right and left, or curved round to form an anchor end.

The Evolution of the Maltese Cross.
From the evidence of the Seals, the Cross Formée and Cross Pattée (a thicker form of Cross with definite fluted arms) with a variant form in the Pattée Formée (almost four triangles in square formation) were used in the 12th and 13th centuries. Some variations of the Cross Formée/Pattée had concave ends to the arms, moving the design toward the eight pointed cross. Local variations of the cross used by the Order such as the Cross Moline used on the Seal of the Priory of Manosque, France early 13th century provided an influence toward an eight pointed cross used in the following century. By the 14th century there is a regular portrayal of an eight pointed cross, such as the Cross Moline or Cross Ancrée, contributing to the evolutionary design.
The uncertain design of the Order's cross in the late 12th century and throughout the 13th century, will reflect the uncertain future the Order faced following the loss of Jerusalem in 1187. Convents were secured in Tyre; 1187, Acre; 1191, Cyprus; 1291. Following the conquest of Rhodes by the Order, the Order was to enjoy a 300 year period of settled existence. In this period a definite form of the eight pointed cross emerged. This was represented by a Cross Formée Branchée/ Fichée, (the Rhodian Cross). The arms of the Rhodian Cross had almost, but not quite, achieved the straight lined sharp arrowhead appearance, noted from the mid 16th century onwards.

Other Authors and their comments on the evolution of the Cross.
Cecil Humphery-Smith in his book on Hugh Revel #13 writes; "In the Matthew Paris shields #14 Gules, a cross argent appears for the Hospital, though some versions draw a cross formy throughout in place of a plain cross. On contemporary seals the cross is already splayed slightly at the ends #15.
Terence Wise notes; "... from the start all members of the Order wore a black mantle. Between 1120 and 1160 it was laid down that a white cross should be worn on the breast of this mantle. No example of this cross survives from the 12th century, but in 1224 the master's seal shows a plain Latin cross. The cumbersome mantle was replaced in 1248 by a black surcoat with a cross on the breasts, but in 1259, as a result of a petition by the Order, permission was granted for all military members to wear surcoats 'and other military insignia [possibly horse trappings?] which shall be of a red colour, and in which a white coloured cross is placed, in the same manner as in your standard.' ... The Order's cross had now taken the shape of a cross formée or pattée.. The development of this cross during our period towards the Maltese cross of the 15th century may be traced via the seals and coins of the Order" #16.


The introduction of the Maltese Cross into the Order.
In the mid 1500s, when the Knights are at Malta, the familiar design now known as the "Maltese Cross" makes its appearance. 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 (fig. 13.) coins of the Grand Master Jean de la 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 (fig. 14.).

Picciolo of Grand Master Claude de la Sengle Not Dated but circa 1553-1557
fig. 12.


Photograph credit: John Gatt
http://www.geocities.com/jagatt/

4 Tari Maltese Coin 1567
fig. 13.


Photograph credit: John Gatt
http://www.geocities.com/jagatt/

"For a period older forms of the Order's Cross persisted."
Dutch 1570 Cross #17
fig. 14.


Possible explanations.

Hospitaller Nuns of Sixena.
Louis de Boisgelin, a Knight of the Order in Malta, prior to the events of their ejection by Napoleon, may provide some clues in the details about the Nuns of Sixena, who were originally a part of the Order of St John but had, at the end of the fifteenth century, separated to come under the direct authority of the Pope. Writing about their returned to the obedience of the Order in 1569, he describes their emblem as a "white cross with eight points" #18. There would have been discussions well before the date of their return, and within Vallette's time. The reconciliation of the Nuns might offer some insights to the origins of the introduction of the Maltese Cross into the Order. Boisgelin's attention to the detail of the cross, suggests en passant, that it was novum to the Order. Its introduction at that point in time fits in with its historic appearance at about the same time. Further research is needed on the use of the eight pointed cross by the Nuns of Sixena, beyond the scope of this monograph, which might affirm or discount this theory.

The Great Siege of Malta.
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 the Great Siege of Malta. Fresh architectural input came from the building of Valletta. For example, any visitor to such as 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 (fig 15.). 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.


Example of Maltese Cross from St John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta.  fig 15.


What is certain is that the Maltese Cross (as defined at the beginning of this monograph) was not adopted by the Order earlier than the mid sixteenth century (except anachronistically) #19, 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.

#1 King, Edwin J, The Knights Hospitaller in the Holy Land, Methuen & Co. Ltd, London 1931, footnote 5 , page 22.
#2 King, Edwin, J. The Seals of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, Methuen & Co. Ltd, London 1932 ; King, Edwin .J. The Rule, Statutes and Customs of the Hospitallers, Methuen & Co. Ltd, London 1931.
#3 King-The Rule, Statutes and Customs of the Hospitallers, photo-plate opposite page 10.
#4 Ashmole, Elias, The History of the most Noble Order of the Garter: And the several Orders of Knighthood extant in Europe. A Bell; E.Curll; J.Pemberton; A Collins; W.Taylor; J.Baker, London 1715. The time of Eugenius III was 1145-1153.
#5 Salter (Revd) H.E. (ed). A Cartulary of the Hospital of St John the Baptist, Oxford Historical Society, Claredon Press 1917. Vol III Frontispiece.
#6 See King-The Seals of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, passim.
#7 A.J. Borg-Cardona, The Amalfi Cross? Letters, The Sunday Times, Malta, August 1st 1999, page 18.
#8 A copy of the work is held in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS Lat. 6067; Caoursin, Guillaume, Siege of Rhodes,  Rhodes 1482-1498.
#9 Caoursin, Guillaume, Gravures sur bois, Stabilimenta, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. I am grateful to Guy Joly GCSJ for pointing this fact out.
#10 A Knight of Rhodes  in the 14th Century. Simon de Hesdin presents his work to Charles V. Bruxelles, Bibliothèque Royale Albert 1st, ms 9078 follio 9v.
#11 Lacroix, Paul. Military and Religious Life in the Middle Ages and at the period of the Renaissance. Chapman and Hall, London, 1873, page 173.
#12 Caluwé, The Reverend Robert de. Guide Notes on Heraldry of the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem Knights Hospitaller, OSJ ivzw Belgium 2000, Illustration 343, page 41.
#13Humphery-Smith, Cecil. R. J. Hugh Revel - Master of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, 1258-1277, Phillimore & Co, Ltd, West Sussex, 1994, preface xi-xii.
#14 Humphery-Smith's footnote 1. London, Tremlett and Wagner, Aspilogia II, Rolls of Arms, Henry III, p25. See also C. R. Humphery_Smith, Anglo-Norman Armory Two, An Ordinary of Thirteenth Century Coat of Arms (1985), p.315, though some versions of this coat appear with arms of the cross throughout.
#15 Humphery-Smith's footnote 2. E. J. King. The Seals of the Order of St John of Jerusalem (1932), plate iii, fig.2; Revue Archéologique, New Series, xxxii (1876), p.237; and L.-C. Doüet d'Arcq, Collection des sceaux (1963), 9881.
#16 Wise, Terence. The Wars of the Crusades 1096-1291, Osprey Publishing Limited, 1978, pages 106-107.
#17 Caluwé, The Reverend Robert de. Guide Notes on Heraldry of the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem Knights Hospitaller , OSJ ivzw Belgium 2000, Illustration 344, page 41.
#18 Boisgelin, Louis de. Ancient and Modern Malta, and the History of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, 3 Volumes bound together. G & J Robinson, London 1804, Volume I, Book II, Chapter I, page 136.
#19 Discounting "near" examples, of accidental similarity, and which had no consistency of use.


Used with permission.
© Copyright 2003 The Reverend Dr.  Michael Foster,
Rector of the Chase Benefice, Dorset.

Fr Foster, is an historic researcher, and is seeking to write a history on the Order following its expulsion from Malta, and is happy to hear from any source, which can provide details of organisations (Priories, or Orders) which alleged to be in lineal descent from the Order of St John which predates 1798. His email address is frmjf@church.prestel.co.uk. Fr Foster's postal address is; The Rectory, Church Hill, Tarrant Hinton, Blandford Forum, Dorset DT11 8JB, United Kingdom.


Updated 12th March 2003
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