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What is a Basilica?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The term “basilica” is used to refer to a specific architectural style, and also in an ecclesiastical sense. A religious basilica may or may not retain the traditional architectural form. The term has come to be used to designate buildings of extreme historical or religious importance by the Roman Catholic Church. A structure designated as a religious basilica is entitled to certain privileges, and there are a number of greater and lesser basilicas scattered across the world.

In architectural terms, a basilica is a large building which has a usually rectangular central area called a nave. Columns line either side of the nave, creating a feature known as a colonnade. An apse, a vaulted recess, was usually located at one end of the basilica. Originally, a basilica was an administrative building. Indoor markets could be held in the colonnade, and large numbers of people could gather in the nave to deal with various administrative tasks. Major authorities would be located in the apse, which could be used for formal meetings and hearings. The oldest such building appears to have been built in 184 BCE, by Cato.

As the Christian church began to expand, the need for large buildings in which to worship arose. Christians wanted to distance themselves from pagan outdoor ceremonies, and began to build churches, structures in which religious worship could take place. The form of a basilica lent itself well to religious building, as the altar could be located in the apse and worshipers could be seated in the nave and colonnade. The basilica design began to dominate religious architecture.

Ultimately, the term began to be used more generally by the Roman Catholic Church to refer to an integral religious building. A church which is classified as a basilica tends to be imposing, beautiful, and important. The most important basilicas are designated for the Pope's use, and are occupied for the celebration of important masses. Even lesser basilicas still have the right to important religious privileges, such as special ceremonial items to be carried in procession and a formal cape worn by the officiant at major religious holidays.

The most important religious basilica is generally considered to be St. Peter's, in Vatican City. It is used by the Pope on important locations, and is also the largest religious building in the world. The prominent building is famous among Roman Catholics all over the world, and also serves as the burial site for many well known religious figures in the Catholic Church. The interior of the basilica is lavishly decorated, and it is a popular destination for tourists.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By CellMania — On Nov 19, 2010

@dill1974: One of the best examples of Byzantine architecture in the world is St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. St. Mark’s Basilica dominates Piazza San Marco and adjoins the Dodge’s Palace. It is located off the Grand Canal. San Marco has been the seat of the Archbishop of Venice since 807 and is a cathedral.

Doge’s Palace was constructed in 828, in Venice as a temporary building of the first St. Mark’s church. Venetian merchants stole the supposed relics of St. Mark the Evangelist, from its original resting place in Alexander, Egypt. The Venetian merchants who stole the relics hid them in a barrel under layers of pork to get them past Muslim guards.

In 832, the original St. Mark’s church was replaced by a new one on its present site today. However, in 976 there was a rebellion and the new church was burned and rebuilt in 978. In 1094, the new basilica was consecrated, the same year the body of St. Mark was rediscovered in a pillar by Vitale Falier.

By dill1971 — On Nov 19, 2010

What is St. Mark’s Basilica?

By WaterHopper — On Nov 19, 2010

@SnowyWinter: The first Christian Emperor Constantine of Rome ordered to build a basilica on Vatican Hill. This was a symbolic location where St. Peter, the chief apostle, was buried in 64 A.D. There was a small shrine already on the site, but it has now been replaced by a new church building completed around 349 A.D.

Pope Nicolas V ordered restoration and enlargement of the church, in the middle of the 15th century. The new church plans were drawn by Bernardo Rossellino. All the works were halted after Nicolas V died.

Pope Julius II appointed Donato Bramante as the chief architect of the new basilica. Michelangelo succeeded Bramante in 1547. Michelangelo altered some of the original plans and designed the imposing dome. St. Peter’s basilica was dedicated in 1626 by Pope Urban VII, two years after Michelangelo died.

By SnowyWinter — On Nov 19, 2010

What is St. Peter’s Basilica?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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