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The Latin word basilicae (derived from Greek, Basiliké Stoà, Royal Stoa, the tribunal of a king), 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.

Basilicas were also used for religious purposes. The remains of a large subterranean Neopythagorean basilica, dating from the 1st century, were found near the Porta Maggiore in 1915; the stuccoes on the interior vaulting have survived, though their exact interpretation remains a matter for debate. The groundplan of Christian basilicas in the 4th century was similar to that of this Neopythagorean basilica, which had three naves, and an apse.

After the Roman Empire became officially Christian, the term came by extension to specifically 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.



Remains of the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine in Rome. The building's northern aisle is all that remains.
Floor plan of the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine.

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 I 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

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.

Christianization of the Roman basilica

Floor plan of a Christian cathedral. Transept is the colored area.

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 .[1] 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.

Old St. Peter's, Rome, as the 4th century basilica had developed by the mid-15th century, in a 19th century reconstruction

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:

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

Ecclesiastical basilicas

Tintinnabulum and conopaeum, one of the privileges granted to a basilica.

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 signaled 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 December 31, 2007, there were 1,524 basilicas (well up from 1,476 in March 26, 2006), of which the majority are in Europe (532 in Italy alone, including all those of elevated status; 167 in France; 105 in Poland; 101 in Spain; 69 in Germany; 29 in Austria; 26 in Belgium; 15 in the Czech Republic; 13 in Hungary; 12 in Switzerland; 20 in the Netherlands; 8 on Malta; 7 each in Croatia and Slovakia; 6 each in Portugal and Slovenia; 5 in Lithuania; and fewer in many other countries), many in the Americas (62 in the United States; 50 in Brazil; 43 in Argentina; 27 in Mexico; 25 in Colombia; 21 in Canada; 14 in Venezuela; 12 in Peru; 9 in Chile; 8 in Bolivia; 5 in Uruguay; 4 in El Salvador and smaller numbers elsewhere), and fewer in Asia (15 in India; 12 in the Philippines; nine in the Holy Land (Israel/Palestine); and smaller numbers elsewhere), 16 in Africa (several countries have one or two) and Australasia (five in Australia and one in Guam) and five (or six depending on definition) in New Zealand.

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. In the case of major basilicas these umbraculuae are made of cloth of gold and red velvet, while those of minor basilicas are made of yellow and red silk—the colors traditionally associated with both the Papal See and the city of Rome.

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 or the burial place of a martyr, although now a term usually designating a space sunk lower than the present floor level before the high altar, which in the case of the Vatican and Lateran basilicas offer more immediate access to the burial places of their respective apostles and in the case of the Liberian basilica enshrines the relics of the manger of Bethlehem.

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 other metropolitan(s) in his circonscription (usually a present or historical state). Other classifications of churches include collegiate churches, which may or may not also be minor basilicas.

A former papal cathedra in the cloister of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, Rome.

Major or papal basilicas (in Rome)

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".[2]
  • St. Peter's Basilica, also called the Vatican Basilica, is a major pilgrimage site, 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".[3]
  • 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".[4]
  • 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".[5]

These four papal[6] or major basilicas were formerly known as "patriarchal basilicas". Together with the minor basilica of St Lawrence outside the Walls, they were with the five ancient patriarchal sees of Christendom (see Pentarchy): St John Lateran was associated with Rome, St Peter's with Constantinople (present Istanbul; in Asia Minor), St Paul's with Alexandria (Egypt), St Mary Major with Antioch (the Levant) and St Lawrence with the junior, Jerusalem.

These four major basilicas are also distinguished by their having a holy door, opened only in a jubilee year. Furthermore, no one may celebrate mass at their high altars except the pope and those specially delegated by the pope to act in his stead. At least until recently, these churches were also open twenty-four hours a day and their staffs included a college of priests whose sole function was to be continually available to hear confessions.

Pontifical and patriarchal minor basilicas in the rest of Italy

There are four other "pontifical" (a word that in this context means "papal", referring to the title pontifex maximus) basilicas in Italy:

Until Pope Benedict XVI, the title "patriarchal" was officially given to two churches associated with Saint Francis of Assisi situated in or near his home town:

The description "patriarchal" also applies to the next class of basilicas, associated with archbishops who have the title of patriarch, notably

Notre-Dame de Québec Cathedral, the first church in North America elevated to the rank of minor Basilica

Other minor basilicas

The minor basilicas form 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 a minor basilica, such as Saint Joseph's Oratory in Montreal.

Notre-Dame de Québec Cathedral in Quebec City was the first basilica in North America, so designated by Pope Pius IX in 1874. The Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis became the first Basilica in the United States in 1926, by Pope Pius XI. In Colombia, the Las Lajas Cathedral has been a minor basilica since 1954. In Africa, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, in Cote d'Ivoire is reported to be slightly larger than St Peter's Basilica.

The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Mexico City, is considered the second most important sanctuary of Catholicism, based upon the number of pilgrims it hosts per year, just after the Vatican City. It receives between 12 and 20 million pilgrims each year[7]. The Sanctuary of Lourdes in France, with several basilicas, receives between 5 and 6 million pilgrims each year.

There was a pronounced tendency in the twentieth century to increase the 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, 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 the 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.


While the great majority of ecclesiastical basilicas are found in Western Europe, there are basilicas in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Australasia and the Americas.


Africa and the Middle East

Asia and Oceania

The Americas

See also

Sources and references


Ecclesiastical basilicas


  1. ^ Basilica Plan Churches
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano (Annuario Pontificio 2007, ISBN 98-88-209-7908-9, p. 1330)
  4. ^ Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le mura (Annuario Pontificio 2007, ISBN 98-88-209-7908-9, p. 1333)
  5. ^ Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore (Annuario Pontificio 2007, ISBN 98-88-209-7908-9, p. 1334)
  6. ^ Basilicas
  7. ^ Septién, Jaime (11 Dec 2007). "Our Lady of Guadalupe Attracting Record Numbers". Zenit. Retrieved 2009-12-12.  

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

There is more than one meaning of Basilica discussed in the 1911 Encyclopedia. We are planning to let all links go to the correct meaning directly, but for now you will have to search it out from the list below by yourself. If you want to change the link that led you here yourself, it would be appreciated.

Simple English

]] A basilica is a large, important church. The word can also be used for an Ancient Roman building that was used for law and meetings. The word "basilica" is Latin which was taken from the Greek "Basiliké Stoà".

Nowadays the word is used in three ways:

  • A Roman Catholic church that has been given the right to use that name, by the pope. Only some large important churches have this right.
  • An Ancient Roman basilica
  • People who write about architecture often use the word "basilica" to mean a building that is shaped like an Ancient Roman basilica.



Ancient Rome

of the Roman basilica of Pompeii show how it was laid out.]]

A Roman basilica was a large hall built for meetings, business and law. A Roman basilica usually had the doors at the long sides of the building. At each end was a semi-circular part where the judges sat. The building usually had two rows of columns, which made a high central part and a lower aisle on either side. The light came in from windows above the columns. As the Roman Empire spread, every city had a basilica.

Early Christian basilicas

Early in the 4th century AD (300s), the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the legal religion of the Roman Empire. The Christians who had been worshipping secretly in private houses now wanted to build churches. They did not want the churches to look the same as Roman Temples. They built them to look more like Roman Basilicas. A basilica was a good plan for a Christian church because lots of people could fit inside, and the aisles were useful for people to move around. The semi-circular part at one end, the apse, was just right to put the altar. Christian basilicas usually have the door at one end, rather than at the side. In front of the door there was often a courtyard called an atrium. Most of these atriums have gone, but churches often have a town square or a market place in front of them.

Some of the oldest Early Christian basilicas were four that were begun in Rome by the Emperor Constantine. Three of them are still standing, but they have had many changes in the last 1,700 years. These are the basilicas of Santa Maria Maggiore, St. John Lateran and St. Paul's outside the Walls. The fourth basilica was 'Old St. Peter's which was replaced in the 16th and 17th centuries by the present St. Peter's Basilica. Other Early Christian Basilicas were built in Greece and the Holy Land.

Present-day basilicas

Some basilicas are called "Ancient Basilicas". These have been called basilicas since Early Christian or Medieval times. It is their traditional name. Ancient Basilicas include the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna and the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Rome. The four other ancient basilicas of Rome are called the "Major Basilicas". Each Major Basilica has a throne for the pope and an altar that is specially for the pope to celebrate mass. No-one else can use that altar without the pope's permission. All the other basilicas are called "Minor Basilicas".

Nowadays, for a church to be called a Minor Basilica, it has to be given some special privileges or rights by the pope in a document called a "Papal Brief". When a church has been made a basilica, the clergy then carry some special symbols when they are in procession. There are more than 1,400 basilicas in the world.

Why do churches become basilicas?

Ancient basilicas

Many churches are given the name "basilica" to show that they are special in some way. There are a very few ancient basilicas that were built on a place that was associated with Jesus. They are thought of as some of the holiest Christian sites in the world. These include the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Basilica of All Nations where Jesus prayed on the Mount of Olives and the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre is very unusual because the church is shared by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.


Other ancient basilicas are places where a saint was martyred (put to death). One of these is the Basilica of Saint Stephen, the first Christian Martyr, which is also in Jerusalem. There are many ancient basilicas which were built on the place where a saint was buried. In Rome there are many basilicas like this, because Rome was a very big city, with many Christian people. The Emperors thought Christianity was dangerous to them, because Christians put the rules of Jesus before the law of the Emperor. Many Christians were martyred. When Christianity became legal, churches were built over the graves of martyrs. These churches often became known as basilicas, because they were in the shape of a Roman basilica. Basilicas built over tombs of martyrs include Sant'Agnese outside the Walls, San Lorenzo outside the Walls, and St. Paul's outside the Walls. The words "outside the walls" mean that the burial place of the saint was outside the walls of the city.


Some basilicas are famous because they have the "relics" (or bones or perhaps a body part) of a saint who did not die there and was not buried there. This can often mean that the body was stolen from the original place, because the people thought that owning a saint's body would bring good luck. In some ways this was true. If a church owned the body of an important saint, then many people would come on pilgrimage and would give money and gifts to the church. Basilicas that have stolen bodies include St. Mark's, Venice, St. Nicholas of Bari, also in Italy, and the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene in Vezelay, France. Not all relics are bodies. Basilicas may also hold a famous object like a piece of the True Cross, or the belt worn by the Virgin Mary. People often ask whether all these precious relics are real. The Roman Catholic Church does not get into arguments about trying to prove whether the pieces of the Cross, the body parts and other things are real. Sometimes the relic is known to be real. Sometimes there is no way to prove it, either way.


Other basilicas are churches that were built by a famous saint, were used by a famous saint, or were built to honour the saint, who did not die as a martyr but lived a very holy life. Two of the most famous basilicas of this sort are the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi and the Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua. Many thousands of pilgrims go to these churches every day to remember two saints who were gentle, humble and taught people to live better lives.

Signs and Miracles

Some basilicas are built because a miracle or special sign took place. The sign might be a vision. The Basilica of Lourdes in France is built at the place where a girl who is now called St. Bernadette had a vision of the Virgin Mary. The basilica at Lourdes is one of the most important pilgrimage places in France. Sometimes the sign is not so strange as a vision. In the Philippines, the Basilica del Santo Niño was built at the place where a partly burnt box was found in 1565. It contained a little statue of the Christ Child and had been left behind by some Spanish or Portuguese explorers many years earlier. "Santo Niño" means "Holy Child" in Spanish.

Well-known basilicas

Major basilicas

The four great Basilicas of Rome, as well as having a seat and an altar for the pope, have a Holy Door which is only opened for special occasions such as a Jubilee Year.

  • The Basilica of St. John Lateran, is also called the Lateran Basilica. It is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.
  • St. Peter's Basilica, also called the Vatican Basilica, is a major pilgrimage site, being built over the burial place of Saint Peter. It is used for most of the main religious ceremonies in which the Pope takes part.
  • The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls, is also known as the Ostian Basilica, because it is on the road that led to Ostia. It is built over the burial place of Saint Paul.
  • The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, (St. Mary Major) is also called the Liberian basilica, because the building was thought to have been built by Pope Liberius. It is the largest church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Other well-known basilicas

]] [[File:|thumb|The Basilica of la Sagrada Familia (the Holy Family), Barcelona]]

  • The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, Israel
  • The Basilica of St. Nicholas of Bari in Bari, Italy
  • The Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua in Padua, Italy
  • The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Italy
  • The Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, Italy
  • The Basilica of St. Denis, near Paris, France
  • The Basilica of Our Lady of Fátima, Portugal
  • The Cathedral Basilica of San Thome, Chennai, India
  • St. Stephen's Basilica, Budapest, Hungary
  • The Cathedral Basilica of St. Chad, Birmingham England(1941)
  • The Cathedral Basilica Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary, Argentina
  • The Cathedral Basilica of St. Mary, Help of Christians Sydney, Australia
  • The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, in Cote d'Ivoire West Africa
  • The Cathedral Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec in Quebec City was the first basilica in North America. (1874).
  • The Cathedral Basilica of Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe, Reykjavík, Iceland
  • The Basilica of St. Adalbert in Buffalo, New York was the first Basilica in the United States of America, (1907)
  • The Cathedral Basilica of Las Lajas, in Colombia
  • Berchem Basilica, Antwerp, Belgium (1878)
  • San Francisco de la Habana Basilica in Havana, Cuba
  • The Basilica of St. Gereon, Cologne, Germany (1920)
  • The Basilica of Our Lady of Lanka, Tewatte, Sri Lanka
  • The Basilica of San Isidoro, Spain
  • The Basilica of the Black Nazarene, Philippines
  • The Basilica of Emmaus Nicopolis, Israel
  • The Basilica of la Sagrada Familia, Spain, has been under construction since 1882, and although it is still unfinished, it was consecrated and proclaimed a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in November 2010


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