What’s a basilica, anyway?

Q: What does it mean for a church to be called a basilica? —Connor

Part I: History Lesson (yawn)

One of the centers of ancient Greek urban life was called the stoa. This was a long, covered walkway surrounded by columns. The stoa functioned as a common place for merchants, artists, and other citizens to gather and interact. The headquarters of the king of Athens was the royal stoa, or the basilikē stoa.

This turned into the word basilica after the idea was adopted by the Romans. As in Greece, the basilica was a key center in every city. Eventually these took on a more-or-less standard form of a long building with two colonnades on the side and a semicircular apse, where the officials would station themselves.

Here’s the floorplan of the basilica of Constantine and Maxentius. This place was enormous: inside the apse there was a 40-foot seated statue of the emperor Constantine.al-basilicamax.jpg

Roman emperors began including basilicas as part of their palace complexes, placing their throne inside the apse. As you can imagine, these vast spaces projected power and strength.

After Christianity became legal under Constantine, early Christians adopted the basilican plan for their churches, replacing the throne in the apse with the altar. Here’s the plan of the old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, built in the 4th century AD: al-oldstpeters.png

The increase of Christian basilicas coincided with the Church’s rise in secular power. Small adaptations were made over the years, so there are a number of variations on the basilican plan, but they all have the same basic shape: long nave, semicircular apse, aisles on the sides.

The Roman church Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) is a classic example of the basilican plan.

Art and Liturgy - Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore Rome
By Maros M r a z (Maros) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8265253


Part II: Basilicas Today

In modern church use, the word basilica has absolutely no architectural meaning. It is now a title given by the Pope to a church, chapel, or shrine that’s a Big Deal™ because of its art, architecture, history, or some popular devotion.

There are four “major” basilicas and almost 1,500 “minor” basilicas around the world today.

The four majors are all in Rome, and you probably recognize their names: St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran, St. Paul outside the Walls, and the granddaddy of them all, St. Peter’s. These four have immense significance in the foundations of Christianity. Minor basilicas are all over. Here’s a list on Wikipedia.

In a fun little bit of obscure Papist trivia, churches named basilicas get a few special privileges. They get to display a funny little red and yellow umbrella commonly called the ombrellino, and a bell called the tintinnabulum. These are used in processions occasionally, but usually they just hang around somewhere inside the church for display.

Art and Liturgy - Basilica ombrellino and tintinnabulum - Treguier France
Tintinnabulum and ombrellino in the Cathedral Basilica of Treguier, France — By Henri MOREAU – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11298780


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Header image by Maros M r a z (Maros) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8265253