L-R. Two fine examples of Maltese Crosses in our collection | Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II wearing crown and full regalia of the venerable Order of St. John of Jerusalem painted by Leonard Boden | Painting depicting men of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem
The Maltese cross has a long and fruitful history having begun its life far from Malta. The eight or four pointed cross is today recognised most commonly as the logo of St. John Ambulance and an international symbol of first aid, health care and humanitarian efforts. It's journey to become this symbol can be dated back nearly 1000 years to the Knights Hospitallers.
The Hospitallers arose in the early 12th century, as a group of individuals in a district of Jerusalem, dedicated to John the Baptist (hence the link to St. John) and founded around 1099 by Gerard Thom to provide care for sick, poor or injured pilgrims coming to the Holy Land on Crusades.
The men and women who worked there were members of a new religious order, officially recognised by the Church in 1113. Known as the Hospitallers, they cared for anyone, without distinction of race or faith - we could do with a similar sense of unity today! After the Crusaders captured Jerusalem, the Hospitallers also took on a military role and thus became known as the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. This is where we see the modern day link to St. Johns ambulance as a bastion for health and care.
When Palestine was recaptured by Muslim forces in 1291, the Order moved briefly to Cyprus and then, in 1309, to Rhodes. The Order remained on Rhodes until 1522, when the Turkish Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (what a title) conquered the island. From Rhodes, the Order moved to Malta. The Orders journey can be seen in the map below.
The link between the Maltese Cross and these islands was forged with the Knights’ arrival in Malta in 1530. By then, the Cross had become the established symbol of the Order, and as the Knights set about putting their stamp across the island through their inspired architectural feats and patronage of the arts, so the Maltese Cross provided the signature to their legacy. The Cross found itself on coats-of-arms, palaces, hospitals, the entrances and gates to various forts and towers, on fortifications as well as on coins, cannon, monuments, churches, paintings and frescoes, furniture and most permanent to us silverware and jewellery.
However, the Crosses real rise to fame took place not long after the Napoleonic invasion of the island in 1798. Despite the Frenches best efforts to attain rule over the native Maltese, discontent erupted and an uprising against the French occupation ensued. The British, sensing an opportunity to gain a strategical advantage aided the Maltese with a naval blockade against Napoleon and his men. Lord Hamilton had commanded the fleet but his success was short lived as the island faced famine due to an extended period of siege.
Lord Hamilton's wife one Lady Emma Hamilton whose popularity and rise into the aristocracy from very humble beginnings now took centre stage in efforts to help prevent the famine which was set to ensue. She used her influence with the Queen of Naples (where she was residing at the time) to secure supplies of grain to relieve the famine.
Her success in this respect was recognised by the Emperor of Russia, Paul I, who on February 27th 1800 appointed her Dame of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem; the enamelled insignia which she proudly wears in the pastel portrait by J. Schmidt of Dresden is in the Victory Museum at Portsmouth (below).
Lady Emma Hamilton pictured here as the first ever female recipient of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem in 1800 | An example of an Order of Malta medal similar to that presented to Lady Hamilton.
Lady Hamilton being quite the popular icon of the time encouraged a vogue for the Maltese Cross and as a result women of all echelons of society aspired to own their own. It was noted in the 1809, June addition of 'La Belle Assemblée' that the evening attire for that month was to be complemented with 'A gold elastic neck chain, with Maltese cross of cornelian and pearl.'
Hand drawn illustration from the June edition of 'La Belle Assemblée' noting that the accessory for the “Evening Promenade Dress in May 1809” was 'A gold elastic neck chain, with Maltese cross of cornelian and pearl.'
The Georgian period saw jewellers produce colourful and flamboyant jewellery and could be set with up to a many precious and semi-precious gem stones within a rich gold and coloured gold framework. Special manufacturing techniques and decorative effects were used to achieve an expensive finish using smaller amounts of gold (pinchbeck).
A fine example housed in the British Museum catalogued as a, 'Maltese cross pendant in white chalcedony with a setting of three-colour gold and turquoises and a glass-covered compartment for plaited hair bordered with pearls in the centre. The reverse has gold graintille and cannetille.' Our example can be said to echo many similarities and dates from around 1820.
L-R A Maltese cross pendant in white chalcedony with a setting of three-colour gold and turquoises and a glass-covered compartment for plaited hair (Reg no. 1978,1002.491) | Georgian 15 Karat Gold Chalcedony Maltese Cross Pendant and Chain Circa 1830
The highly ornate filigree work of spirals (cannetille) and granules (grainti) added an appealing relief texture, but it was more popular on mainland Europe than in England, where clients preferred more substantial areas of plain gold. This can be seen to spectacular effect with the piece below.
A Maltese cross brooch, tortoiseshell, decorated with gold cannetille work, turquoises and a pearl, western Europe, about 1825 from the V&A collection (ref. no. M.25-1996). Alongside our eight pointed piqué, pearl and fine gold Cross, with beautiful acorn and delicately decorated leaves dating from a similar period.
L-R A Maltese cross brooch, tortoiseshell, decorated with gold cannetille work, turquoises and a pearl, western Europe, about 1825 from the V&A collection (ref. no. M.25-1996) | Georgian Filigree Gold, Piqué and Seed Pearl Maltese Cross Pendant, Circa 1825
The Cross remained in high fashion until around 1830 to 1840 and had small revivals throughout the 19th century. Today Georgian jewellery is highly sought after due to its intricacy, attention to detail and exceptional craftsmanship. With that said, the Maltese Cross holds a special place in any collectors hoard and as we've seen its long and fruitful history makes it one of the more historically interesting pieces of Georgian and antique jewellery and one to be treasured.