A basilica is a type of building, usually a church, that is typically
rectangular with a central nave and aisles, usually with a slightly
raised platform and an apse at one or both ends. In Europe and the
Americas it is the most common architectural style for churches though
this building plan has become less dominant in new buildings since the
later 20th century. Today the term basilica is often used to refer to
any large, ornate church building, especially
Roman Catholic and
Eastern Orthodox, even if it does not strictly follow this style.
The basilican architectural style originated in ancient Rome and was
originally used for public buildings where courts were held, as well
as serving other official and public functions. The basilica was
centrally located in every Roman town, usually adjacent to the main
forum. As the
Roman Empire adopted Christianity, the major church
buildings were typically constructed with this style and thus it
became popular throughout Europe.
Roman Catholic basilicas are Catholic pilgrimage sites,
receiving tens of millions of visitors per year. In December
Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City set a new
record with 6.1 million pilgrims during Friday and Saturday for the
anniversary of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
2.1 Basilicas in the Roman Forum
2.2 Palace basilicas
2.3 Christian adoption of the basilica form
2.3.1 Comparison of profiles of churches
2.4 Basilicas in Eastern Orthodoxy
3 Ecclesiastical basilicas
3.1 Ranking of churches
3.2 Major or papal basilicas
3.3 Minor basilicas
3.4 Basilicas and pilgrimages
3.5 Ecclesiastical basilicas by region
4 See also
5 References and sources
6 External links
St. John in the Lateran is both an architectural and an ecclesiastical
Latin word basilica derives from the Greek βασιλικὴ
στοά (basilikè stoá), lit. "royal stoa (walkway)", originally
referring to the tribunal chamber of a king. In Rome the word was at
first used to describe an ancient Roman public building where courts
were held, as well as serving other official and public functions. To
a large extent these were the town halls of ancient Roman life. The
basilica was centrally located in every Roman town, usually adjacent
to the main forum. These buildings, an example of which is the
Basilica Ulpia, were rectangular, and often had a central nave and
aisles, usually with a slightly raised platform and an apse at each of
the two ends, adorned with a statue perhaps of the emperor, while the
entrances were from the long sides.
By extension the name was applied to Christian churches which adopted
the same basic plan and it continues to be used as an architectural
term to describe such buildings, which form the majority of church
buildings in Western Christianity, though the basilican building plan
became less dominant in new buildings from the later 20th century.
Later, the term came to refer specifically to a large and important
Roman Catholic church that has been given special ceremonial rights by
Remains of the
Basilica of Maxentius
Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine in Rome. The
building's northern aisle is all that remains.
Floor plan of the
Basilica of Maxentius
Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine
The Roman basilica was a large public building where business or legal
matters could be transacted. The first basilicas had no religious
function at all. 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 in the same way as the late medieval
covered market houses of northern Europe, where the meeting room, for
lack of urban space, was set above the arcades, however. Although
their form was variable, basilicas often contained interior colonnades
that divided the space, giving aisles or arcaded spaces on 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
Cato the Elder during the time he was Censor. Other
early examples include the basilica at
Pompeii (late 2nd
Probably the most splendid Roman basilica (see below) is the one begun
for traditional purposes during the reign of the pagan emperor
Maxentius and finished by Constantine I after 313 AD.
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
Basilica Sempronia, built by the censor Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus
in 169 BC
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)
Julian Basilica, initially dedicated in 46 BC by
Julius Caesar and
Augustus 27 BC to 14 AD
Basilica Argentaria, erected under Trajan, emperor from 98 AD to 117AD
Basilica of Maxentius
Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine (built between 308 and
In the Roman Imperial period (after about 27 BCE), a basilica for
large audiences also became a feature in palaces. In the 3rd
century AD, the governing elite appeared less frequently in the
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 5th 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 semi-circular apse, with matching transept spaces.
Clustered columns emphasised the "crossing" of the two axes.
Christian adoption of the basilica form
See also: Christianised sites
Structural elements of a gothic basilica.
Variations: Where the roofs have a low slope, the gallery may have own
windows or may be missing
The remains of a large subterranean
Neopythagorean basilica dating
from the 1st century AD were found near the
Porta Maggiore in
Rome in 1915. The ground-plan of Christian basilicas in the 4th
century was similar to that of this
Neopythagorean basilica, which had
three naves and an apse.
In the 4th century, once the Imperial authorities had decriminalised
Christianity with the 313 Edict of Milan, and with the activities of
Constantine the Great and his mother Helena, Christians were prepared
to build larger and more handsome edifices for worship than the
furtive meeting-places (such as the Cenacle, cave-churches, house
churches such as that of the Roman consuls John and Paul) they had
been using. Architectural formulas for temples were unsuitable, for
their pagan associations, and because pagan cult ceremonies 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
memorialise his imperial piety, was the familiar conventional
architecture of the basilicas.
Floor plan of a Christian church of basilical form, with part of the
transept shaded. Either the part of the nave lying to the west in the
diagram or the choir may have a hall structure instead. The choir also
may be aisleless.
There were several variations of the basic plan of the secular
basilica, always some kind of rectangular hall, but the one usually
followed for churches had a central nave with one aisle at each side
and an apse at one end opposite to the main door at the other end. In,
and often also in front of, the apse was a raised platform, where the
altar was placed, and from where the clergy officiated. In secular
building this plan was more typically used for the smaller audience
halls of the emperors, governors, and the very rich than for the great
public basilicas functioning as law courts and other public
purposes. 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 storeys high, with ranks of arch-headed windows
one above the other, without aisles (there was no mercantile exchange
in this imperial basilica) and, at the far end beyond a huge arch, the
apse in which Constantine held state.
Comparison of profiles of churches
Basilical structure: The central nave extends to one or two storeys
more than the lateral aisles, and it has upper windows.
Pseudobasilica (i. e. false basilica): The central nave extends
to an additional storey, but it has no upper windows.
Stepped hall: The vaults of the central nave begin a bit higher than
those of the lateral aisles, but there is no additional storey.
Hall church: All vaults are almost on the same level.
Aisleless church with wallside pilasters, a barrel-vault and upper
windows above lateral chapels
Assumption of Mary's in
Bad Königshofen (Franconia, Germany) is a
Basilica of Sant'Apolli- nare in Classe near
Putting an altar instead of the throne, as was done at Trier, made a
church. Basilicas of this type were built in western Europe, Greece,
Syria, Egypt, and Palestine, that is, at any early centre of
Christianity. Good early examples of the architectural basilica
Church of the Nativity
Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem
(6th century AD), the church of St Elias at
Thessalonica (5th century AD), and the two great basilicas at
The first basilicas with transepts were built under the orders of
Emperor Constantine, both in Rome and in his "New Rome",
"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 a form
borrowed from civil semi-public precedents. The first great Imperially
sponsored Christian basilica is that of St John Lateran, which was
given to the
Bishop of Rome by Constantine right before or around the
Edict of Milan
Edict of Milan in 313 and was consecrated in the year 324. In the
later 4th-century, other Christian basilicas were built in Rome: Santa
Sabina, and St Paul's Outside the Walls (4th century), and later St
Clement (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
ground-plan of St Peter's
Basilica in Rome, until in the 15th century
it was demolished to make way for a modern church built to 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
Armenia and Georgia, 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", or "pseudobasilica" in central Europe.
Gradually, in the early
Middle Ages there emerged the massive
Romanesque churches, which still kept the fundamental plan of the
United States the style was copied with variances. An American
church built imitating the architecture of an Early Christian
basilica, St. Mary's (German) Church in Pennsylvania, was demolished
Old St Peter's, Rome, as the 4th century basilica had developed
by the mid-15th century, in a 19th-century reconstruction
Romanesque basilica of nowadays Lutheran
Bursfelde Abbey in Germany
Chester Cathedral in England, a
Perpendicular style basilica
St. Sebald's in
Nuremberg has a basilical nave and a hall choir
Palma Cathedral on
Spain has windows on three levels, one
above the aisles, one above the file of chapels and one in the
A rare American church built imitating the architecture of an Early
Christian basilica, St. Mary's (German) Church in Pennsylvania, now
Basilicas in Eastern Orthodoxy
Wooden church from Maramures, Romania.
Eastern Orthodox Church, in general, the basilica is a mere
architectural description of churches built in the ancient style. It
bears no significance with regard to precedence or importance of the
particular building or clerics associated with it. Eastern basilicas
may be single-naved, or have the nave flanked by one or two pairs of
lower aisles; it may have a dome in the middle: in this case, it is
called a "domed basilica".
In Romania, the word for church both as a building and as an
institution is biserică, derived from the term basilica.
The style influenced the construction of early wooden churches.
Basilica of St
Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi (architecturally an
aisleless nave with lateral chapels)
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, which was under way in the 5th
century. Basilicas in this sense are divided into classes, the major
("greater") basilicas and the minor basilicas; there are three other
papal and several pontifical minor basilicas in Italy, and over 1,400
lesser basilicas around the world.
Churches designated as papal basilicas, in particular, possess a papal
throne and a papal high altar, at 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 confessio or the burial place of a martyr – although this
term now usually designates a space before the high altar that is sunk
lower than the main floor level (as in the case in St Peter's and
St John Lateran in Rome) and that offer more immediate access to
the burial places below.
Ranking of churches
Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, MN. The first basilica
established in the United States.
Salta in Argentina.
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 minor 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
Main article: Major basilica
To this class belong only the 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 in 2006 the title of
Pope Benedict XVI renamed these basilicas from
"Patriarchal Basilicas" to "Papal Basilicas".
St. John Lateran, also called the Lateran Basilica, is the cathedral
Bishop of Rome, the Pope.
St. Peter's, also called the Vatican Basilica, is a major pilgrimage
site, built over the burial place of Saint Peter.
St. Paul Outside the Walls, also known as the Ostian
it is situated on the road that led to Ostia, is built over the burial
place of Paul the Apostle.
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.
The four papal or major basilicas were formerly known as "patriarchal
basilicas". Together with the minor basilica of St Lawrence
outside the Walls, they were associated with the five ancient
patriarchal sees of Christendom (see Pentarchy): St John Lateran
was associated with Rome, St Peter's with Constantinople
(present-day Istanbul), St Paul's with
Alexandria (in Egypt),
St Mary Major with
Antioch (the Levant) and St Lawrence with
Main article: Minor basilica
Basilica of the Sacred Heart of
Paris (France) is a minor basilica,
but not an architectural basilica
The privileges attached to the status of minor 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 umbraculae are made of cloth of gold and red velvet,
while those of minor basilicas are made of yellow and red silk—the
colours traditionally associated with both the Papal See and the city
Tintinnabulum and conopaeum, one of the privileges granted to a
There are five "pontifical" minor basilicas in the world (the word
"pontifical" referring to the title "pontiff" of a bishop, and more
particularly of the
Bishop of Rome): Pontifical
Basilica of Our Lady
of the Rosary of Pompeii, the Pontifical
Basilica of Saint Nicholas in
Bari, the Pontifical
Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua, the
Basilica of the Holy House at Loreto, the Pontifical
Basilica of St Michael in Madrid, Spain.
Pope Benedict XVI, the title "patriarchal" (now "papal") was
officially given to two minor basilicas associated with Saint
Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi situated in or near his home town:
Basilica of St Francis of Assisi
Basilica of St Mary of the Angels in Portiuncola.
The description "patriarchal" still applies to two minor basilicas
associated with archbishops who have the title of patriarch: the
Basilica of St Mark in
Venice and the
Basilica of Aquileia.
Not all Patriarchal cathedrals are minor basilicas, notably: the
Cathedral of St Mary Major in Lisbon, Portugal, the
Cathedral of Santa Catarina, Old Goa, India.
Basilicas and pilgrimages
Basilica of Divine Mercy, constructed in 2002 in Kraków, Poland,
received 2 million pilgrims in 2011.
In recent times, the title of minor basilica has been attributed to
important pilgrimage churches. In 1999
Bishop Francesco Giogia stated
Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City (constructed
in the 20th century) was the most visited Catholic shrine in the
world, followed by
San Giovanni Rotondo
San Giovanni Rotondo and
Basilica of the National
Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil. Millions of pilgrims
visit the shrines of
Our Lady of Lourdes
Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Fatima.
Pilgrimage basilicas continue to attract well over 30 million pilgrims
Every year, on 13 May and 13 October, the significant dates of the
Fatima apparitions, pilgrims fill the country road that leads to the
Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima
Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima with crowds that approach one million
on each day. In December 2009 the
Basilica of Our Lady of
Guadalupe set a new record with 6.1 million pilgrims during Friday and
Saturday for the anniversary of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Ecclesiastical basilicas by region
As of 2017, there were 1,761 churches that bore the title of
Architecture of cathedrals and great churches
List of basilicas
Roman Catholic Marian churches
Porta Maggiore Basilica
References and sources
^ a b Sacred Travels by Lester Meera 2011 ISBN 1-4405-2489-0 page
^ a b c "Eternal Word Television Network, Global Catholic Network".
Ewtn.com. 1999-06-13. Retrieved 2012-02-17.
^ a b "Zenith News December 14, 2009". Zenit.org. Archived from the
original on 13 November 2011. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
^ The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art and Architecture (2013
ISBN 978-0-19968027-6), p. 117
^ "The Institute for Sacred Architecture - Articles - The
Eschatological Dimension of Church Architecture".
Basilica Plan Churches". Cartage.org.lb. Archived from the original
on 12 January 2012. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
^ Syndicus, 40
^ a b Gietmann, G. (1913). "Basilica". In Herbermann, Charles.
Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
^ a b The title of minor basilicas was first attributed to the church
of San Nicola di Tolentino in 1783. Older minor basilicas are referred
to as "immemorial basilica".
^ Trudy Ring, 1996, International Dictionary of Historic Places,
ISBN 978-1-884964-02-2 page 245
^ Gcatholic.org (4 March 2013). "Basilicas in the World". Archived
from the original on 4 March 2013. Retrieved 12 November 2017.
Krautheimer, Richard (1992). Early Christian and Byzantine
architecture. New Haven: The Yale University Press.
Architecture of the basilica, well illustrated.
Syndicus, Eduard, Early Christian Art, Burns & Oates, London, 1962
W. Thayer, "Basilicas of Ancient Rome": from Samuel Ball Platner (as
completed and revised by Thomas Ashby), 1929. A Topographical
Ancient Rome (London: Oxford University Press)
Paul Veyne, ed. A History of Private Life I: From Pagan Rome to
Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador
Gietmann, G. (1913). "Basilica". In Herbermann, Charles.
Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Basilicas.
Look up basilica in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
List of All Major, Patriarchal and Minor Basilicas & statistics by