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 center 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 rites 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.
The oldest known basilica, the Basilica Porcia, was built in Rome in 184 BC by Cato the Elder during the time when he was a 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).
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," according to Peter Brown. Seated in the tribune of his basilica the great man would meet his dependent clients 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.
Christianizing 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 before. 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.
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."
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 ecclesiastical 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, which were 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. The "privileges" attached to the status of basilica, which is conferred by a 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).
The Papal basilicas
There are only four churches in Rome that are included in this class. Each of them has a special "holy door," and that a visit to these churches are prescribed as one of the conditions for gaining indulgences during Roman Jubilees. Pope Benedict XVI renamed these basilicas from Patriarchal to Papal:
- St. John Lateran is the cathedral of the Pope as the Bishop of Rome and hence is the only one called archbasilica (full name: Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour, St. John the 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.
- Saint Paul's 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.
- Early Christian Basilica Church