Over long periods of time, the popularity of certain symbols seems to rise and fall. Some even take on different meanings although their forms remain essentially the same. The Maltese cross is an excellent example of one of these types of symbols and one whose current popularity begins to eclipse its past uses. It takes its name from the island of Malta and, more specifically, the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, better known as the Sovereign Order of Malta, an organization somewhat akin to the Red Cross but with medieval roots in both care for the sick and knighthood. The Order of St. John was founded in Jerusalem in 1099 by the armies of the First Crusade, beginning as a monastic community which was dedicated to St. John the Baptist, offering hospice and medical care to pilgrims in the Holy Land. Soon after however, they also undertook military functions for the protection of the sick and their newly won territory.
It was Fra Raymond du Puy, the second head of the order, who introduced the white cross on a red field which even today is their emblem. That this particular cross was known elsewhere is evidenced by another 11th-century use. On the Angby Stone, a memorial stone found in Sweden, the Maltese cross is in the center, surrounded by two intertwining snakes, and it’s also carved with runes.
However, the specific form that is currently popular in tattooing bears the closest resemblance to the variation used as a military decoration in Europe. It was Frederick William III, King of Prussia, who instituted the use of the Iron Cross (a Maltese cross of cast iron with a silver border) in 1813. For over one hundred years, during times of war, the Iron Cross was revived for use by various leaders but perhaps none more famously than Adolf Hitler in 1939, on the day that German forces invaded Poland. Hitler decreed that the cross be conferred for exceptional bravery or leadership in the face of the enemy and expanded the number of grades to eight – second class Iron Cross, first class, etc., up to the Grand Cross, awarded only once to Hermann Goring. Whether found on a Knight of Malta, a Swedish memorial, a military decoration, or even in combination with a tribal tattoo, it is the symmetric simplicity of the cross with the accentuated and flared ends that has ensured its enduring appeal.