The symbol of the cross has a very special and characteristic meaning in Malta. The George Cross, which bears witness to the heroism and devotion of the Maltese, is to be found on the national flag as of 1942. Moreover, the cross is the symbol of the Christian faith, which is the official religion of the islands of Malta, and in fact most of the Maltese population are Roman Catholic. One can therefore find crosses everywhere, starting from ornaments in houses and streets, to pieces of jewellery worn by many individuals.
The cross is also predominantly present in most of the baroque and medieval architecture found around the islands of Malta and Gozo. This is mainly because the Order of the Knights of Saint John, which was the one inherently responsible for most of Malta’s cultural heritage, was itself a Roman Catholic military order, whose allegiance was to the Papacy.
It was during the time of the Knights of the Order that stone crosses supported by tall columns started to be built in prominent positions in towns, streets, and squares. Usually, there is also a flight of circular steps or a platform at the column’s base. There are many of these stone crosses interspersed around Malta and Gozo, and not all seem to have had the same function or origin. Many of them were built to mark the demarcation of parish boundaries. Perhaps the most famous parish boundary cross is that of Marsa, which now stands some metres away from the original cross site. This is considered to be a landmark and known as ‘Croce Marsa’ or ‘Is-Salib tal-Marsa’, that is, the Marsa Cross. This cross marks the split of the Valletta parish from the mother parish of Qormi. It also marks the boundaries between Valletta, Qormi and Tarxien. Another important landmark is the ‘Salib tal-Imrieħel’, the Mrieħel Cross, which stands on the spot where the parishes of Attard, Balzan and Birkirkara meet.
Many crosses are also believed to be linked to a number of traditions or events which took place annually at the particular parish, while others still are thought to have been built to commemorate a particularly important figure or historical happening. A very famous stone cross is that found in Howard Gardens just inside the Mdina bastions. It is located on the spot where the church of Saint Mark the Evangelist once stood. This church had to be demolished as its location threatened the security of the Mdina bastions. In medieval times, the magistrate of the then capital city of Mdina used to hear petitions and pass judgements at this spot. Moreover, it was customary on Palm Sunday to hold a procession starting from the Mdina Cathedral and ending at the foot of the stone cross. For this occasion, the cross used to be decorated with a palm branch and an olive branch.
At Qormi, there is another such stone cross to be found in the square in front of Our Lady of the Victories Church. This cross serves a reminder of a number of churches which were deconsecrated and demolished on the order of Bishop Balaguer Camarasa, who served as Bishop of Malta from 1635-1663. Another similar cross was erected at Ħal Millieri in the limits of Żurrieq, next to Saint John the Evangelist’s chapel. In the vicinity of this chapel, there is a second one dedicated to the Annunciation. In former days, a third chapel also existed in this area, and the stone cross is a reminder of this chapel. This is also the case for the stone cross located between the two churches of Saint Rocque and the Annunciation found in Balzan, whereby the cross marks the past existence of a third church, which today exists no more.
Tarxien boasts an unusual cross known as ‘is-Salib tad-Dejma’, that is, the Dejma Cross, which according to legend was erected to mark the battle between the Turks, Knights and the Maltese forces on the eve of the Great Siege of 1566. When the cross was erected, it became a landmark for the Dejma soldiers to meet there when they were on duty. This cross was rebuilt several times, however today the original is still to be found inside the village’s cemetery.
There are many other stone crosses around Malta and Gozo, like the one found in Kirkop next to the Annunciation Chapel, the one found in Mqabba next to the Parish Church, the one near the Żebbug Parish church, and the one next to the Parish Church of Luqa, to name but a few.