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The Latin word basilica (derived from Greek, Basiliké Stoà, Royal Stoa, the tribunal of a king), was originally used to describe a Roman public building (as in Greecemarker, 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.


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 Regiamarker (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

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 . 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 Triermarker, 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 Nativitymarker at Bethlehem (6th century), the church of St Elias at Thessalonica (5th century), and the two great basilicas at Ravennamarker.

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 Sabinamarker, 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 Basilicamarker 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 Georgiamarker and Armeniamarker, 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

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 Italymarker alone, including all those of elevated status; 167 in Francemarker; 105 in Polandmarker; 101 in Spainmarker; 69 in Germanymarker; 29 in Austriamarker; 26 in Belgiummarker; 15 in the Czech Republicmarker; 13 in Hungarymarker; 12 in Switzerlandmarker; 20 in the Netherlandsmarker; 8 on Maltamarker; 7 each in Croatiamarker and Slovakiamarker; 6 each in Portugalmarker and Sloveniamarker; 5 in Lithuaniamarker; and fewer in many other countries), many in the Americas (62 in the United Statesmarker; 50 in Brazilmarker; 43 in Argentinamarker; 27 in Mexicomarker; 25 in Colombiamarker; 21 in Canadamarker; 14 in Venezuelamarker; 12 in Perumarker; 9 in Chilemarker; 8 in Boliviamarker; 5 in Uruguaymarker; 4 in El Salvadormarker and smaller numbers elsewhere), and fewer in Asia (15 in Indiamarker; 12 in the Philippinesmarker; nine in the Holy Land (Israelmarker/Palestine); and smaller numbers elsewhere), 16 in Africa (several countries have one or two) and Australasia (five in Australia and one in Guammarker) and five (or six depending on definition) in New Zealandmarker.

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.

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 Lateranmarker, 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".
  • St. Peter's Basilicamarker, 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".
  • Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Wallsmarker, 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".
  • St. Mary Majormarker, 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".

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

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

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 Oratorymarker in Montrealmarker.

Notre-Dame de Québec Cathedralmarker in Quebec Citymarker was the first basilica in North America, so designated by Pope Pius IX in 1874. The Basilica of Saint Marymarker in Minneapolismarker became the first Basilica in the United Statesmarker in 1926, by Pope Pius XI. In Colombiamarker, the Las Lajas Cathedralmarker has been a minor basilica since 1954. In Africa, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukromarker, in Cote d'Ivoiremarker is reported to be slightly larger than St Peter's Basilica.

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 Fallenmarker near Madridmarker, the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelomarker, in Carmel, Californiamarker, Manila Cathedralmarker (also known as the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Intramurosmarker or the original Spanish settlement of Manilamarker) 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.


File:Downside abbey2.jpg|British Islesmarker: the Basilica of St Gregory the Great, Downside, UKmarkerFile:Basílica de Begoña.jpg|Western Europe: the Basilica of Our Lady of Begoña, Bilbaomarker,SpainmarkerFile:Basilica2.JPG|Eastern Europe: St Stephen's Basilica, Budapestmarker

Africa and the Middle East

File:Basilique Notre-Dame d Afrique Alger.jpg|North Africa: the Basilica of Our Lady of Africa, AlgiersmarkerFile:Church of All Nations2.jpg|Middle East: the Basilica of the Agony in the Garden, Jerusalemmarker

Asia and Oceania

File:Goa Velha Basilica Bom Jesus.jpg|Asia: the Basilica of Bom Jesus, Goa Velha, IndiamarkerFile:Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica Side.JPG|South East Asia: the Basilica of Our Lady, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnammarkerFile:Basilica del Santo Nino.jpg|Asia: the Basilica of the Holy Child, Cebu, PhilippinesmarkerFile:Manila_Cathedral_Front.jpg|Asia: Manila Cathedral, Manilamarker, PhilippinesmarkerFile:St-Marys-church-geelong-victoria-australia.jpg|Australia: the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels, Geelong, AustraliaFile:StMarysCathedral fromHydePark.JPG|Australia: St Mary's Cathedral, Sydneymarker, AustraliaFile:Sschurch1.jpg| Asia: The Basilica Minore de San Sebastian, Quiapo, Manilamarker. The only all steel Minor Basilica in Asia.

The Americas

File:BasilicaFromTheNorth.jpg|United Statesmarker: Basilica of St. Josaphatmarker, Lincoln Village, Milwaukeemarker, WisconsinmarkerFile:2008-0705-BasilicaStMary.jpg|United Statesmarker: Basilica of St. Marymarker, Minneapolismarker, MinnesotamarkerFile:Basilique du Sanctuaire National de l'Immaculée Conception.jpg|United Statesmarker: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conceptionmarker, Washingtonmarker, DCmarkerFile:Carey Ohio Shrine Basilica Exterior Front.jpg |United Statesmarker: Basilica and National Shrine of Our Lady of Consolationmarker inFile:St_Mary's_Cathedral_Basilica,_Galveston.jpg|United Statesmarker: Cathedral Basilica of Saint Marymarker, Galvestonmarker, TexasmarkerFile:Basilica de Zapopan atrio.jpg|Mexicomarker: the Basilica of Our Lady of ZapopanFile:Carmo-recife-10.jpg|Brasilmarker: the Basilica of Our Lady of Carmel, RecifeFile:Buenos Aires - La Plata1.jpg|Argentinamarker: the Immaculate Conception Basilica, La Plata, Buenos Airesmarker

See also

Sources and references


Ecclesiastical basilicas


External links

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