You think you can find out about just about anything on the internet but you can’t. Some things become so indelibly associated with a particular institution or group of people that no amount of googling can filter them out. If you look at stonemasons you contend with hundreds of pages of earnest discussions of Freemasonry. Kilts? Try finding something not about the Scots and/or the Irish. Maltese Cross? It’s the Knights of St John or Hospitallers and...er...Malta!
Anyway, what is that Maltese Cross doing on North Grimston font? Let’s start by saying that the tendency to “fatten” the arms of the cross is an ancient one. Below I reproduce pictures I took of the basilica of St Simeon Stylites in Syria. That was completed in AD490 forsooth and we can only pray that it is not being destroyed in the current Civil War. You will see some crosses with broadened arms and some of them could appropriately be called “Maltese Crosses”. Worship there ended in AD1017 so we know, therefore, that this type of cross pre-dated the Norman Conquest and possibly by half a millennium!
The Hospitallers or Knights of St John officially adopted this cross in 1126. The eight points at the extremities of the arms are held to represent the eight cardinal virtues expected of a Knight. This is firmly within the Norman period. Does it suggest then that North Grimston’s font refers to the Order? Hardly. They were barely established in this part of the country at this time.
What I find unsettling about this image is that it pictorial. Christ is being lifted from a real cross and our sculptor could have been under no illusions that the instrument of death was anything other than a simple wooden cross. So why represent it in this stylised way? Was it an artistic fancy of the sculptor? Well, there is little here to suggest the work of a talented and imaginative man. It is inconceivable that our sculptor could read Latin so his knowledge of the Bible would hardly have been comprehensive. The execution here might be crude, but the subject matter is unusual and shows in-depth knowledge of scripture. We might, therefore, conclude very reasonably that this font was carved under instructions from an educated man - and educated men then meant the monks. So perhaps that maltese cross does have some symbolic meaning even within this narrative context.