The Maltese Cross
The eight pointed Maltese Cross has been associated with the fire service and heroism for a long time. The story of its' origin and meaning have been passed through the annuls of time from the Knights of the Crusades of the 11th and 12th century.
Founded in Jerusalem, and dedicated to St. John the Baptist, an order of monks known as the brothers of St. John (or Knights Hospitaller), were a non-military, charitable denomination, specializing in medical studies, took vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience to help the sick and poor by establishing hospitals and hospices that would welcome and aid any visitor of any faith that would pass through the Holy Land.
That all changed, when the wars for control of the Holy Land commenced. Jerusalem became the centre of the carnage. Willing to fight for a Holy cause, the brothers militarized their order and assisted the Knights of the Crusades but continued to protect the sick and poor with acts of goodwill and charity. The Knights became respected warriors for their willingness to risk their own lives to assist others.
While battling the Saracens for the Holy Land, the Knights encountered a type of warfare that was unfamiliar to their strategy - fire. The Saracens would hurl glass vials filled with an incredibly flammable fluid (Naphtha) at the Crusaders which would break and drench the Knights. With the air reeking of Naphtha soaked soldiers, the Saracens would toss flaming branches and trees onto the Knights, setting them ablaze. An incredibly slow and agonizing death was sure to follow. This fire tactic was also used at sea as the Saracens would sail their vessels (containing Naphtha, sulfur, and flaming oil) into the ships of the Crusaders. "I am glad I was not on call that weekend".
The Knights of St. John became firefighters out of necessity, and became well known for risking their own lives to save the lives of their brethren by extinguishing the fires.
Completely encased in body and facial armor, identifying 'brethren' and the 'enemy' became an increasing dilemma. To rectify this, the Knights donned a mantle, worn as a red (or dark background) surcoat over their armor, bearing the white emblem of the Cross of Calvary (Cross of Amalfi). This emblem identified their allegiance and showed that they fought for a holy cause.
After the siege of Acre in 1291, the Knights Hospitaller went to Cypress. Abolished from there, the Knights moved to Rhodes in 1310 where they remained until 1523. Arriving in Malta (Mediterranean Sea) in 1535, the knights continued their charitable work. The hospitals that the Knights of Malta built, were at the forefront of medical science. They continued to use their adopted symbol of identification which was a white (Amalfi) cross on a dark background. This gradually became known as the Maltese cross.
The capture of Malta by Napoleon in 1798 lead to the dispersal of the Knights throughout Europe and resulted in the various Orders of St. John today.
The eight pointed Maltese cross can be interpreted in different ways. The eight points could be read as the eight beatitudes of Christ's Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5. 3-10)
The Maltese Cross is also interpreted as a symbol of the eight chivalric virtues.
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