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Old St. Peter's, Rome, as the 4th century basilica had developed by the late 15th century, in a 19th century reconstruction
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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 at the centre of a Roman town (forum). 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 rights by the Pope. Thus the word retains two senses today, one architectural and the other ecclesiastical.


[edit] The basilica in architecture

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 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).

[edit] Basilicas in the Roman Forum

[edit] 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.

[edit] Christianising the Roman basilica

The Basilica of St Francis Xavier, Dyersville, Iowa. This is one of only a handful of basilicas in the United States outside of a major metropolitan 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.

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 successs." (Yvon Thébert, in Veyne, 1987)
Image:Basilique-Cathédrale Notre-Dame Québec.JPG
Notre-Dame de Québec Basilica-Cathedral in Quebec was the first church in North America to be elevated to the rank of minor Basilica

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 Near East, 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."

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

[edit] The ecclesiastic basilica

The Early Christian purpose-built basilica was the cathedral basilica of the bishop, on the model of the semi-public basilicas of the secular power elite, 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 no less than 1,476 basilicas, of which the majority were 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, 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, 20 in Canada, 13 in Venezuela, 12 in Peru, et cetera), and fewer in Asia (14 in India, 12 in the Philippines, nine in the Holy Land, some other countries one or two), Africa (several countries one or two) and Oceania (Australia 4, 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 papilio, sinicchio, etc.) and the bell (tintinnabulum), which together are carried 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 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 pilgrimage, especially among the many that were built above a Confession (Burial Place of a Martyr).

[edit] The Major Basilicas

To this class belong just four great 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.

While the major basilicas form a class that outranks all other churches, even other papal ones, all other, so called minor basilicas, as such do not form a single class, but belong to different classes, most of which also contain non-basilicas of equal rank; within each diocese, the bishop's cathedral takes precedence over all (other) basilicas. Thus after the major basilicas come the primatial churches, the metropolitan, other (e.g. suffragan) cathedrals, collegiate churches etc.

[edit] The patriarchal basilicas in Rome

The four major basilicas above and the minor basilica of St Lawrence outside the Walls (representing the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and without a holy door) are collectively called the patriarchal basilicas. This group of five is representative of the great ecclesiastical provinces of the world symbolically united in the heart of Christendom (see Pentarchy).

[edit] Pontifical minor basilicas in the rest of Italy

Two more Italian churches are nominally papal patriarchal basilicas:

Another is the Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, which has its own patriarch.

Next in rank are four so-called pontifical basilicas (so in name also papal), in Italy:

  • Pontifical Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompei
  • Pontifical Basilica of St. Nicholas of Bari
  • Pontifical Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua
  • Pontifical Basilica of the Holy House of Loreto

[edit] Other minor basilicas

Image:St John's Basilica NFLD.jpg
St John the Baptist in St. John's, Newfoundland was designated a Minor Basilica in 1955.

The lesser minor basilicas are the vast majority, including some cathedrals, many technically parish churches, some shrines, some abbatial or conventual churches. Cathedral Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec in Quebec City was the first basilica in North America, designated by Pope Pius IX in 1874. The Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, Minnesota was the first basilica in the United States of America.

There has been a pronounced tendency of late years to add to their number. In 1960, Pope John XXIII even declared Generalisimo Franco's grandiose tomb in the monumental Valley of the Fallen near Madrid a basilica.

[edit] Oratory

A basilica should not be confused with an oratory which is a semi-private place of worship. The Oratorians have constructed several oratories, none of which are basilicas. Some oratories, though, have been raised to the status of minor basilica, such as Saint Joseph's Oratory in Canada.

[edit] Sources and references

[edit] Architecture

[edit] Ecclesiastical basilicas

[edit] See also

cs:Bazilika da:Basilika de:Basilika et:Basiilika es:Basílica eo:Baziliko fr:Basilique gd:Bàislig it:Basilica he:בזיליקה ka:ბაზილიკა lt:Bazilika li:Basiliek hu:Bazilika nl:Basiliek ja:バシリカ no:Basilika nrm:Basouque pl:Bazylika pt:Basílica ru:Базилика sk:Bazilika fi:Basilika (kirkko) sv:Basilika tr:Bazilika uk:Базиліка zh:巴西利卡


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