Learn more about Basilica
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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.
 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.
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).
 Basilicas in the Roman Forum
- Aemilian Basilica, built by the censor Aemilius Lepidus in 179 BC
- Julian Basilica, completed by Augustus
- Basilica Opimia, erected probably by the consul L. Opimius in 121 BC, at the same time that he restored the temple of Concord (Platner, Ashby 1929)
- Basilica Sempronia, built by the censor Marcus 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 . 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.
- "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)
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.
 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.
 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.
- St. John Lateran is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome: the Pope (who formerly held the title Patriarch of the West), and hence is the only one called archbasilica (full name Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour, St. John Baptist and St. John the Evangelist at the Lateran). It is also called the Lateran basilica.
- St. Peter's Basilica is symbolically assigned to the Patriarch of Constantinople. It is also known as the Vatican basilica.
- St. Paul outside the Walls, technically a parish church , is assigned to the Patriarch of Alexandria. It is also known as the Ostian basilica.
- St. Mary Major is assigned to the Patriarch of Antioch. It is also called the Liberian basilica.
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.
 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).
 Pontifical minor basilicas in the rest of Italy
Two more Italian churches are nominally papal patriarchal basilicas:
- Patriarchal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi
- Patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Portiuncola
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
 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. 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.
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.
 Sources and references
- Architecture of the basilica, well illustrated.
- Basilica Porcia
- 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
 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
 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