Collecting Malta and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta

May 3, 2021, 5 PM

By Janet Klug

Some countries have stamps that are designed in a distinctive style that is immediately recognizable. One such country is Malta.

Cremona was one of the pre-eminent Maltese artists of the 20th century. He was born in 1919 and studied art at the Malta School of Arts and the Regia Accademia delle Belle Arti in Rome. His style was modern, angular and even sculptural in appearance.Maltese stamps from the late 1950s until about the mid 1980s certainly rate the title of distinctive. During this time period, most of the stamps are dark, dominated by blacks, grays, silvers and tiny red Maltese crosses, the symbol of the nation. Most of the stamps from this period were designed by one man, Emvin Cremona.

The first of the Cremona designs were stamps issued in 1957 commemorating the award of the George Cross to Malta for the bravery of its citizens during the April 1942 Siege of Malta (Scott 263-65). The 1½-penny Symbol of Malta's War Effort stamp (263) from the set is shown in Figure 1.

Located in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, Malta was strategically important to both sides in World War II. The German and Italian air forces flew 3,000 bombing missions against Malta in an attempt to overcome the British defenses. The British defenses held, with much credit due to the courage of the Maltese citizens.

The 3d stamp from the set (Scott 264) shows searchlights seeking enemy aircraft in the night sky over Malta, and the 1-shilling stamp (265) pictures houses that had been devastated by the bombing.

Cremona designed two additional sets for the George Cross, one issued in 1958 (Scott 269-71) and another in 1959 (272-74). These design commissions led to more Cremona stamps, many of which had religious themes.

It is not surprising that religious subjects would play a key role in stamps of Malta.

Malta has an established church: Roman Catholicism is Malta's state religion, and more than 95 percent of the population profess the Roman Catholic faith.

It is intriguing to see how Cremona's style evolved from a sculptural but still very realistic 8d St. Paul diamond-shaped stamp (Scott 278), shown in Figure 2, which was issued in 1960 to mark 1900 years since St. Paul was shipwrecked on Malta, to the angular and nearly abstract Nativity scene on the 2d Christmas stamp (309) from 1964 shown in Figure 3.

The following year, 1965, the Magi (three wise men), graced the Christmas stamps, again in an angular style. The stamps were similar to a series of paintings Cremona made between 1954 and 1962 that would serve as models for mosaics.

Once completed, the paintings were sent to Italy for master mosaic artists to convert them into images made from tile and stone. Once that work was done, the paintings were returned to Malta, where they were placed in a closet. Over time, exposure to humidity made large chunks of the paint flake off the canvases.

In 2005, Malta Post used four of the Cremona-designed mosaics for its Christmas stamps. The 22¢ Adoration of the Magi design (Scott 1226) is nearly identical, although more colorful, than the 1965 Cremona Magi stamps.

Sparked by the issuance of the 2005 Christmas mosaic stamps, a search to find the original oil paintings was on. When they were located and the damage assessed, a decision was taken to restore the beautiful paintings.

The restoration was completed in 2008, and the paintings were hung in the National Sanctuary of Our Lady of Ta' Penu in Gozo, Malta.

Cremona designed secular stamps, too. He was responsible for the artwork for a long series of regular issue stamps that were issued beginning in 1965. The theme of the series was the history of Malta. The denominations ranged from ½d to £1. The stamps are dark, bold and often seem three-dimensional.

One of Cremona's most abstract designs is found on a set of three stamps issued in 1970 for the 25th anniversary of the United Nations (Scott 420-22). On the 2d stamp shown in Figure 4, the dove, the U.N. emblem and the scales of justice are minor players that are shoved up into the upper right corner. The main subject is a human figure struggling forward and upward.

You have to study the design to understand the symbolism. Although the colors are a little brighter, the work is unmistakably Cremona's.

Cremona died in 1987. Malta's stamps have continued to evolve and reflect its fascinating history as well as popular themes.

Collectors of Maltese stamps are sometimes confused by stamps inscribed "Sovrano Militare Ordine di Malta." These are stamps issued by a humanitarian organization known in English as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and the Sovereign Military and Hospitallier Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, Rhodes and Malta. The acronym, SMOM, blessedly suffices.

Figure 5 shows a 1-scudo stamp (Sassone 90) issued in 1973 that depicts the SMOM center for leprosy in Asmara, Ethiopia (today located in Eritrea). It is part of a five-stamp set commemorating SMOM humanitarian efforts in Africa.

SMOM headquarters is located in Rome rather than in Malta. It is a Roman Catholic military order that was established in 1048 to care for pilgrims en route to and from the Holy Land.

Today, SMOM has 12,500 members, some of whom have taken religious vows and others who are lay members of the order. All members of SMOM have committed to serve the poor and sick. The organization provides medical and humanitarian aid throughout the world, most recently in Pakistan for the flood victims there.

SMOM is recognized as sovereign by more than 100 nations. It issues its own passports, has its own constitution, and has issued its own postage stamps since 1966. Fifty-six nations have bilateral postal agreements with SMOM, but the United States is not one of them.

Many collectors shun SMOM stamps because they consider them to be cinderellas from an organization that is not a country. SMOM stamps are not listed in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue; however, they are listed in the Italian-language Sassone Specialized Catalog of Italy and Italian Areas, the Unficato Catalog of Italy and Italian States Stamps, and the Milano Encyclopedic Catalog of Italy.

Whether or not to collect such stamps is entirely up to the individual collector.

To find out more about SMOM and view a complete listing of its stamps, visit the web site at: