The Latin word basilica (derived from Greek, "Basiliké Stoà", Royal "Stoa"), was originally used to describe a Roman public building (as in Greece, mainly a tribunal), usually located in the forum of a Roman town. In Hellenistic cities, public basilicas appeared in the 2nd century BC.

After the Roman Empire became officially Christian, the term came by extension to refer to a large and important church that has been given special ceremonial rites by the Pope. Thus the word retains two senses today, one architectural and the other ecclesiastical.


In architecture, the Roman basilica was a large roofed hall erected for transacting business and disposing of legal matters. Such buildings usually contained interior colonnades that divided the space, giving aisles or arcaded spaces at one or both sides, with an apse at one end (or less often at each end), where the magistrates sat, often on a slightly raised dais. The central aisle tended to be wide and was higher than the flanking aisles, so that light could penetrate through the clerestory windows.

The oldest known basilica, the Basilica Porcia, was built in Rome in 184 BC by Cato the Elder during the time he was censor. Other early examples include the one at Pompeii (late 2nd century BC).

Probably the most splendid Roman basilica (see below) is the one constructed for traditional purposes during the reign of the pagan emperor Maxentius and finished by Constantine after 313. As early as the time of Augustus, a public basilica for transacting business had been part of any settlement that considered itself a city, used like the late medieval covered markethouses of northern Europe (where the meeting room, for lack of urban space, was set "above" the arcades).

Basilicas in the Roman Forum

*Basilica Porcia: first basilica built in Rome (184 BC), erected on the personal initiative and financing of the censor Marcus Porcius Cato (Cato the Elder) as an official building for the tribunes of the plebs
*Aemilian Basilica, built by the censor Aemilius Lepidus in 179 BC
*Julian Basilica, completed by Augustus
*Basilica Opimia, erected probably by the consul Lucius Opimius in 121 BC, at the same time that he restored the temple of Concord (Platner, Ashby 1929)
*Basilica Sempronia, built by the censor Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus in 169 BC
*Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine (308 - after 313)

Palace basilicas

In the early Imperial period, a basilica for large audiences also became a feature in the palaces. In the 3rd century AD, the governing elite appeared less easily in the forums. "They now tended to dominate their cities from opulent palaces and country villas, set a little apart from traditional centers of public life. Rather than retreats from public life, however, these residences were the forum made private." (Peter Brown, in Paul Veyne, 1987). Seated in the tribune of his basilica the great man would meet his dependent "clientes" early every morning.

A private basilica excavated at Bulla Regia (Tunisia), in the "House of the Hunt," dates from the first half of the 4th century. Its reception or audience hall is a long rectangular nave-like space, flanked by dependent rooms that mostly also open into one another, ending in a circular apse, with matching transept spaces. The "crossing" of the two axes was emphasized with clustered columns.

Christianising the Roman basilica

In the 4th century, Christians were prepared to build larger and more handsome edifices for worship than the furtive meeting places they had been using. Architectural formulas for temples were unsuitable, not simply for their pagan associations, but because pagan cult and sacrifices occurred outdoors under the open sky in the sight of the gods, with the temple, housing the cult figures and the treasury, as a backdrop. The usable model at hand, when Constantine wanted to memorialize his imperial piety, was the familiar conventional architecture of the basilicas . [ [ Basilica Plan Churches ] ] These had a center nave with one aisle at each side and an apse at one end: on this raised platform sat the bishop and priests. Constantine built a basilica of this type in his palace complex at Trier, later very easily adopted for use as a church. It is a long rectangle two stories high, with ranks of arch-headed windows one above the other, without aisles (no mercantile exchange in this imperial basilica) and at the far end, beyond a huge arch, the apse in which Constantine held state. Exchange the throne for an altar, as was done at Trier, and you had a church. Basilicas of this type were built not only in Western Europe but in Greece, Syria, Egypt, and Palestine. Good early examples of the architectural basilica are the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem (6th century), the church of St Elias at Thessalonica (5th century), and the two great basilicas at Ravenna.

The first basilicas with transepts were built under the orders of Emperor Constantine, both in Rome and his "New Rome," Constantinople::"Around 380, Gregory Nazianzen, describing the Constantinian Church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople, was the first to point out its resemblance to a cross. Because the cult of the cross was spreading at about the same time, this comparison met with stunning success." (Yvon Thébert, in Veyne, 1987)

Thus a Christian symbolic theme was applied quite naturally to form borrowed from civil semi-public precedents. In the later 4th century other Christian basilicas were built in Rome: Santa Sabina, St John Lateran and St Paul's-outside-the-Walls (4th century), and later San Clemente (6th century).

A Christian basilica of the 4th or 5th century stood behind its entirely enclosed forecourt ringed with a colonnade or arcade, like the stoa or peristyle that was its ancestor or like the cloister that was its descendant. This forecourt was entered from outside through a range of buildings along the public street. This was the architectural groundplan of St Peter's Basilica in Rome, until first the forecourt, then all of it was swept away in the 15th century to make way for a great modern church on a new plan.

In most basilicas the central nave is taller than the aisles, forming a row of windows called a clerestory. Some basilicas in the Caucasus, particularly those of Georgia and Armenia, have a central nave only slightly higher than the two aisles and a single pitched roof covering all three. The result is a much darker interior. This plan is known as the "oriental basilica."

Famous existing examples of churches constructed in the ancient basilica style include:
*The church at Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai
*The Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna.

Gradually in the early Middle Ages there emerged the massive Romanesque churches, which still retained the fundamental plan of the basilica.

Ecclesiastical basilicas

The Early Christian purpose-built basilica was the cathedral basilica of the bishop, on the model of the semi-public secular basilicas, and its growth in size and importance signalled the gradual transfer of civic power into episcopal hands, underway in the fifth century. Basilicas in this sense are divided into classes, the major ("greater"), and the minor basilicas, i.e., three other patriarchal and several pontifical minor basilicas in Italy, and over 1,400 lesser basilicas on all continents.

As of March 26 2006, there were 1,476 basilicas, of which the majority are in Europe (526 in Italy alone, including all those of elevated status; 166 in France; 96 in Poland; 94 in Spain; 69 in Germany; 27 in Austria; 23 in Belgium; 13 in the Czech Republic; 12 in Hungary; 11 in the Netherlands; and less than ten in many other countries), many in the Americas (58 in the U.S.; 47 in Brazil; 41 in Argentina; 27 in Mexico; 25 in Colombia; 21 in Canada; 13 in Venezuela; 12 in Peru; etc), and fewer in Asia (14 in India; 12 in the Philippines; nine in Israel; and some other countries one or two), Africa (several countries one or two) and Australasia (Australia 5 and Guam one).

The privileges attached to the status of basilica, which is conferred by Papal Brief, include a certain precedence before other churches, the right of the "conopaeum" (a baldachin resembling an umbrella; also called "umbraculum", "ombrellino", "papilio", "sinicchio", etc.) and the bell ("tintinnabulum"), which are carried side by side in procession at the head of the clergy on state occasions, and the cappa magna which is worn by the canons or secular members of the collegiate chapter when assisting at the Divine Office.

Churches designated as patriarchal basilicas, in particular, possess a papal throne and a papal high altar from which no one may celebrate Mass without the pope's permission.

Numerous basilicas are notable shrines, often even receiving significant pilgrimages, especially among the many that were built above a Confession.

Major or papal basilicas

To this class belong just four great papal churches of Rome, which among other distinctions have a special "holy door" and to which a visit is always prescribed as one of the conditions for gaining the Roman Jubilee. Upon relinquishing the title of Patriarch of the West, Pope Benedict XVI renamed these basilicas from "Patriarchal Basilicas" to "Papal Basilicas".

*St. John Lateran, also called the Lateran Basilica, is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. It is the only one called an "archbasilica". Its full official names are "Papal Basilica of Saint John Lateran", "Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and of Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran", "Cathedral of Rome". [Basilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano - Arcibasilica del Salvatore e dei Santi Giovanni Battista ed Evangelista al Laterano - Cattedrale di Roma (Annuario Pontificio 2007, ISBN 98-88-209-7908-9, p. 1332]
* St. Peter's Basilica, also called the Vatican Basilica, is a major pilgrimage site, being built over the burial place of Saint Peter. Perhaps the largest church in the world, it is used for most of the chief religious ceremonies in which the Popes participate. Its official name is "Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican". [Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano (Annuario Pontificio 2007, ISBN 98-88-209-7908-9, p. 1330)]
* Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, also known as the Ostian Basilica, because situated on the road that led to Ostia, is built over the burial place of Paul the Apostle. Its official name is "Papal Basilica of Saint Paul outside the Walls". [Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le mura (Annuario Pontificio 2007, ISBN 98-88-209-7908-9, p. 1333)]
* St. Mary Major, also called the Liberian basilica, because the original building (not the present one) was attributed to Pope Liberius, is the largest church in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary , whence its name of Saint Mary Major, i.e. the Greater. Its official name is "Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major". [Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore (Annuario Pontificio 2007, ISBN 98-88-209-7908-9, p. 1334)]

These four papal [ [ Basilicas] ] or major basilicas were formerly known as "patriarchal basilicas". Together with the minor basilica of St Lawrence outside the Walls, they were by some associated with the five ancient patriarchal sees of Christendom (see Pentarchy). Thus St John Lateran was associated with Rome, St Peter's with Constantinople, St Paul's with Alexandria, St Mary Major with Antioch, and St Lawrence with Jerusalem.

Other basilicas

There are four "pontifical" (a word that in this context means "papal") basilicas in Italy:

*The Pontifical Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompei
*The Pontifical Basilica of Saint Nicholas in Bari
*The Pontifical Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua
*The Pontifical Basilica of the Holy House at Loreto

The title "patriarchal" is officially given to two churches associated with Saint Francis of Assisi situated in or near his home town:

*Patriarchal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi
*Patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Portiuncola

The description "patriarchal" also applies to basilicas associated with bishops who have the title of patriarch, such as the Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of St. Mark in Venice and the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia, which with its archaeological area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Other minor basilicas

The lesser minor basilicas are the vast majority, including some cathedrals, many technically parish churches, some shrines, some abbatial or conventual churches. Some oratories, semi-private places of worship, have been raised to the status of minor basilica, such as Saint Joseph's Oratory in Canada.

Notre-Dame de Québec Cathedral in Quebec City was the first basilica in North America, designated by Pope Pius IX in 1874. St. Adalbert's Basilica in Buffalo, New York was the first Basilica in the United States in 1907 by Pope Pius X. In Colombia, the Las Lajas Cathedral has been a minor basilica since 1954. Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, in Cote d'Ivoire (West Africa) is reported slightly larger than St Peter's Basilica.

There was a pronounced tendency in the twentieth century to add to their number of churches that were granted the title of minor basilica. Examples among the many are the church containing Francisco Franco's tomb and those of many others in the monumental Valley of the Fallen near Madrid, the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, in Carmel, California (USA), Manila Cathedral, also known as the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Intramuros, or the original Spanish settlement of Manila, and the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano. Towards the end of that century stricter rules were applied and it was decided, for instance, that since cathedrals outrank basilicas in any case, the title of minor basilica would no longer be granted to them.

Ranking of churches

The papal or major basilicas outrank in precedence all other churches. Other rankings put the cathedral (or co-cathedral) of a bishop ahead of all other churches in the same diocese, even if they have the title of basilica. If the cathedral is that of a suffragan diocese, it yields precedence to the cathedral of the metropolitan see. The cathedral of a primate is considered to rank higher than that of a metropolitan. Other classifications of churches include collegiate churches, which may or may not also be minor basilicas.

ources and references


* [ Architecture of the basilica] , well illustrated.
* [ Basilica Porcia]
* [*/basilicae.html W. Thayer, "Basilicas of Ancient Rome":] from Samuel Ball Platner (as completed and revised by Thomas Ashby), 1929. "A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome" (London: Oxford University Press)
* Paul Veyne, ed. "A History of Private Life I: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium," 1987
* [ Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador]

Ecclesiastical basilicas

* [ List of All Major, Patriarchal and Minor Basilicas] by Giga-Catholic Information
* "Catholic Encyclopedia:" [ Basilica] & minor parts in other articles
* Richard Krautheimer, "Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture"
* [ "Domus ecclesiae:" Privileges and obligations pertaining to minor basilicas]


External links

* [ with the "conopaeum" and "tintinnabulum"] by the collegiate chapter of the Basilica of Sts Peter and Paul in Gozo, Malta
* [ First Basilica in the United States]

ee also

* List of basilicas
* Cathedral
* Duomo
* Roman architecture
* Polish Cathedral style

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