48 Feature THE SUNDAY TIMES I May 8, 2011 49
In the relatively short span of 25
years, Malta conferred upon itself
the luxury of three successive
shields of arms. Each reflected
important and less important
political and national orientations.
We probably all know what
the iconic emblems looked like –
but do we know much about how
and why they came about?
I regret to admit that the first
Independence symbol is the one
I know least about. Independence,
that seminal turning point
in our national identity, had to be
marked by a new visual symbol,
central to its nascent destiny.
Malta already had some
graphic images that associated
with its history, like the eightpointed
cross and the George
Cross, and could well have opted
to work around those staple
badges of recognition.
It did not, probably because
they were linked – and not too
subtly either – with previous foreign
dominations. Though both
‘colonial’, neither carried obvious
undertones of shame or humiliation,
as most colonial memories
The eight-pointed cross of the
Order of St John evoked courage,
determination, Christian empathy
with the afflicted; the George
Cross evoked resistance, and
then some more, against all odds
until ultimate victory.
But with independence the
Maltese rulers wanted an almost
clean cut with all that. Almost
clean, because the new national
emblem incorporated both the
eight-pointed cross and the
George Cross, though in a minor,
non-assertive, key. The result: an
image heraldically impeccable
and graphically of the highest aesthetic
standards. The Royal College
of Arms based in London
reaps all the credit, and, no
doubt, rightly so, but...
I distinctly remember that wonderful
artist Emvin Cremona discussing
a similar shield of arms in
great detail, and sketches in hand
with my father Vincenzo. Cremona
frequently consulted my
father on artistic and heraldic matters.
At that time my father was
possibly the only person in Malta
with a passion for heraldry and
somehow versed in its arcana.
I continue to harbour niggling
doubts, however. Was Cremona
actually discussing with my father
an independence shield of arms
for 1964, or was it the design for the
commemorative 2d postage stamp
issued in 1967 on the occasion of
the Queen’s visit to Malta? That
stamp had the Maltese independence
emblem as its central theme.
I am afraid I am unable to confirm
which of these two possibilities
corresponds to reality, and the
question of a Cremona design
input in the first emblem must
remain open. The painter later
reused the Malta Independence
coat of arms on the Lm2 stamp of
the definitive decimal issue of 1973.
But to make up, on the Latin
motto of that first Independence
coat-of-arms I am able to shine
some fresh light. Prime Minister
George Borg Olivier settled for
Virtute et Constantia, variously
translated as courage, daring,
valour for the first Latin noun,
and as perseverance, firmness,
endurance, tenacity or persistence
for the second.
The motto is hardly innovative,
nothing like a Maltese brainwave
by any stretch. In fact, it boasts of
a long and vivid history, looking
back more than two millenniums.
The first time I have found that
phrase documented is in Cicero’s
celebrated defence Pro Sulla oratio,
delivered by that superior Roman
jurist and politician in 62 BC on
behalf of Cornelius Sulla, accused
of taking part in the Catilinarian
conspiracy. And, in the wake of Cicero,
the author of the chronicles of
the Spanish War (possibly, but by
no means certainly, written by
Julius Caesar himself), also picked
up the same buzzwords in his De
bello hispaniensi, around 40 BC:
virtute et constantia.
Closer to home, Grand Master
de Valette relied on that turn of
phrase in a dispatch to King
Philip II of Spain to describe the
victory of the Great Siege of 1565
– through daring and perseverance
– almost certainly penned
by his proficient Latin secretary
Sir Oliver Starkey, who would
have known his Cicero and other
Roman classics thoroughly.
De Valette’s choice of words, in
turn, is said to have inspired Antonio
Sciortino in his concept for the
bronze Great Siege monument in
Republic Street: Malta flanked by
daring and perseverance.
But, almost certainly not by
coincidence, Pope Pius IV had
also addressed two briefs to the
Grand Master after the raising of
the Great Siege, using almost
identical words: incredibile virtute
(through unbelievable valour and
Borg Olivier’s choice fell on a
phrase with a long and distinguished
lineage, doubly connected
with one of the most salient
episodes in the history of Malta.
Not to demean the Independence
coat of arms, but the same
motto Virtute et Constantia had
also been previously adopted by
a number of noble families in
Europe. The security police of
Estonia similarly identify with the
motto of the 1964 shield of arms
of independent Malta.
Since independence and before
Malta became a republic, the Governor-
General used the same
emblem, but substituted the
British royal crest (a golden lion
standing upon St Edward’s crown)
for the mural crown. He did that as
he represented Elizabeth I, Queen
of Malta, on the islands.
Before independence, the
George Cross stood on a blue
square (canton). Some interpreted
the blue as a reference to
the third colour (tincture) in the
Union Flag, though more likely it
stood for the blue ribbon of that
The blue background was
removed with independence –
but that created a problem. In
heraldry, white stands for silver,
so the silver George Cross would
have stood directly on a silver
ground making it technically
invisible. A red piping (fimbriation)
was added around the cross
to avoid this.
I am in a position to reveal
much more of the unpublicised
goings-on which led to the
‘Republic’ emblem, officially
launched on July 11, 1975.
Dom Mintoff, then Prime Minister,
wanted to get rid of Malta’s
constitutional coat-of-arms, on
the mistaken assumption that the
crown over the red and white
Maltese shield represented royalty,
and consequently had no
legitimacy once Malta had
ditched the monarchy and
become a republic.
This was patently wrong – the
mural (or walled) crown on the
Independence shield had nothing
to do with royalty or with the
royal crown – the various mural
crowns stand for demarcated territories
or for national sovereignty,
not for monarchy.
In fact, after the rebellion
which led to Spain becoming a
republic in 1873, the country’s
coat-of-arms remained the
same, but Spain substituted the
old royal crown by a mural
crown – exactly to underscore
the change from monarchy to
And when, after World War I,
Austria became a republic, the
Austrians removed the double
royal crowns from their coat-ofarms
and placed the mural
crown instead. Malta already
had, since independence, a
mural, conveniently republican,
crown, on its shield.
I have the full story of the second
emblem directly from the
horse’s mouth. Edward Abela,
then assistant general manager at
Mid-Med Bank, had a marked
interest in art and attended
evening courses in painting techniques
given by the distinguished
Maltese artist Esprit Barthet.
Mcast hosted those classes.
One evening, Barthet shared
with his students an invitation he
had received from the authorities
– his class had been chosen to
come up with a design for a new
passport – no mention of a
national emblem at that stage. Barthet
added that this would be a
unique opportunity for the art class
to be given official recognition – it
had been specially selected to carry
out that important task.
He appealed to the students
not to let him down and to take
part in what, in substance, would
be an art competition with a difference.
Barthet specified that the
design was to include the Maltese
dgħajsa and two farming implements,
a shovel and a winnowing
fork – possibly the sun too.
Abela rose to the challenge
and, though not requested,
inserted a prickly pear “to complete
the scene”. Great was his
surprise when his art teacher
revealed to him that his design
had been selected by the Prime
Minister personally, together with
the entry by another student.
Would they collaborate to produce
a joint drawing? Not the best
of ideas – too many artists spoil
the emblem – and eventually the
job to finish and polish off the
concept of the design fell on
Abela alone, with instructions to
liaise with the Foreign Office.
Maurice Abela of that department
hurried Edward Abela up –
Malta was running out of travel
documents and Mintoff insisted
that passports with the Independence
emblem should stop being
Maurice Abela acted as intermediary
between the designer
and the Prime Minister – ‘a few
frantic meetings’ – the latter proposing
some changes, until a final
design was agreed upon, with
some input from the printers. It
was only at this late stage that
Maurice Abela learnt that the
design was to serve as the new
emblem of the republic – would
he have a word with Vincent
Depasquale, Malta’s librarian and
well versed in heraldry?
In fact, Edward Abela’s design
became the official new national
emblem, and as such appeared
on the freshly-printed green
travel documents, popularly
known as the Gaddafi passports.
As Edward Abela had no experience
in colour printing, this
aspect of the task remained with
Esprit Barthet. Maurice Abela
enquired if Edward Abela had
received the prize – which eventually
turned out to be a cheque
for Lm20, a set of the latest Malta
stamps, and a letter of thanks on
behalf of the Prime Minister.
The new emblem, deliberately
devised outside the parameters of
the ancient rules of heraldry,
raised quite some controversy in
the House of Representatives and
in the press. One highly-unconvinced
expert called it “relentlessly
Mintoff was under the (mistaken)
impression that the design
had been submitted by a schoolboy
(hardly so; Edward Abela, virtually
my twin, was 39 then) – a misconception
that found itself in the press
and that no one had ever set right
so far. It goes on being repeated to
the present day.
The round emblem included
the legend ‘Repubblika ta’ Malta’
– another mistake. The official
name of the state is ‘Malta’ and
not ‘Republic of Malta’. Sadly, this
constitutional blunder was carried
over to the current arms.
Edward Abela rose to become
general manager of Mid-Med Bank
and later of Bank of Valletta. In
1982, the Banca Commerciale Italiana
of Toronto, Canada, offered
him a job – and there he became its
When he lived in Montreal, Quebec,
he exercised the functions of
honorary consul for Malta. He now
resides permanently in Ontario,
and painting in water colour and
acrylic takes up much of his time.
After the change of government
in 1987, the authorities felt
Malta direly needed to project a
fresh image. Many innovations
were considered impellent: the
new philosophies of governance
were manifestly unable to identify
further with the old perceptions
These, in turn, brought about an
overwhelming reluctance to be
profiled by previous symbols. It was
thought pointless to market a new
product in an old wrapping.
The task of constructing that new
national emblem was assigned to
the Honours and Awards Working
Committee, chaired by Adrian
Minister Ugo Mifsud Bonnici,
later President, showed the committee
some designs he had
received from amateur volunteers,
but the members rejected them as
they were determined to revert to a
design for the national arms that
respected the traditional and hallowed
rules of heraldry.
Some discussions ensued as to
whether Malta should adopt anew
the first Independence emblem, or
opt for a new one altogether.
Richard Cachia Caruana believed
the old insignia should serve as a
basis for the new one, but in a version
much simplified – with the
elimination of a number of elements
which the Royal College of
Arms had originally inserted in the
first national emblem.
More debate followed about the
scroll: should it contain the original
motto Virtute et Constantia, or
should it be Repubblika ta’ Malta
like the previous one?
Philo Pullicino proposed an altogether
new Latin motto: Laetentur
Insulae – let the islands rejoice,
suitable to the positivity that was
then sweeping Malta. Mr Pullicino
must have known his Old Testament
well. The phrase comes from
Psalm 96: Dominus regnavit, exultet
terra, laetentur insulae multae.
But eventually Repubblika ta’
Malta prevailed for the scroll – quite
uselessly, I believe. A national
emblem is, in itself, a badge of identification,
and should require no
further emphasis to explain itself.
Prime Minister Eddie Fenech
Adami showed some unease at the
omission of the eight-pointed cross
but did not impose his views.
The committee instructed
Adrian Strickland to prepare preliminary
sketches, which were then
translated graphically into the finished
design by Robert Calì.
The Government Gazette formally
promulgated the new
emblem in virtue of the Official Seal
of Malta Act of 1988.
That new design has served
Malta well for 23 years – far longer
than any of its predecessors.
Thanks to Marco Cremona,
Edward Abela and Adrian
Strickland for their constructive
Malta’s three national emblems since
independence – what’s behind them?
“The new 1975
appeared on the
popularly known as
The 1988 coat of arms of Malta. The 1975 Republic emblem of Malta. The 1964 Independence shield of arms of Malta.
Artwork by Emvin Cremona for the Lm2 decimal definitive issue stamp. Courtesy
of Heritage Malta/Maltapost.
1975 preliminary sketch by Edward Abela for a new passport, which
eventually became the emblem of the Republic.
Edward Abela, who designed the Republic emblem of 1975, painting in Canada.
“Mintoff wanted to
get rid of Malta’s
coat of arms,
on the mistaken
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