views updated May 23 2018


A large rectangular, hall-like building, fully covered with a roof and usually supported by interior columns. At Athens the Stoa Basilikē (royal stoa) was a building on the Areopagus, where official and other business was transacted. In its Latinized form, basilica referred to a public building, hall-like in form, such as the Basilica Julia, erected by Julius Caesar and reconstructed by both Augustus and Diocletian (285305). It was rectangular in shape and had a series of double colonnades that divided it into four aisles with a central hall, at one end of which was an apse or rounded court where the praetor sat. The other end contained the single entrance, and above the

main aisle there was a second story. The basilica was used for the transaction of both public and private business, particularly in inclement weather. In the later empire, every sizable city had one or more such buildings facing the forum.

Christian House Church

The primitive Christians, following the example of Christ, who presided at the Last Supper in a coenaculum, or upper room (Mk 14.15; Lk 22.12), and that of the Apostles and Disciples, who gathered in prayer while awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost in an upper room (Acts 1.1314), held their assemblies in private houses where they received instruction, broke bread in the Eucharistic celebration, and prayed (Acts 20.79). The Christians of Jerusalem were gathered in the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, praying at night when Peter was delivered from prison (Acts 12.1217), and Paul refers several times to private homes

in which he preached and prayed (1 Cor 16.19; Rom 16.3, 5; Col 4.15; Plm 1.23).

At the end of the 1st century the didache describes the exhortation, the Eucharistic celebration, and preparation for Baptism in a private home (4.14; 14.1), and justin martyr alludes (c. 160) to a place for the ablution or Baptism (Apol. 1.6567), again clearly in a private home where the Christian mysteries were celebrated. minucius felix uses the word sacraria to specify a special place where Christians gathered for worship (Octav. 9.1), but it was still in a private house (10.2).

Archeological Evidence. Archeological evidence from the 3d century confirms the fact that the so-called domus ecclesia, or house church, was the usual site of Christian liturgical gatherings. References to meetings in the cemeteries for the celebration of rites other than the commemoration of the dead before the middle of the 3d century are usually legendary, although Saints Chrysanthus and Daria, and Pope sixtus ii and his companions, were surprised by the police in cemeteries and martyred respectively on the Via Salaria and the Via Appia outside Rome.

Evidence from the early 4th century presented by excavations beneath the Basilica of Saint clement, Rome, which have revealed several levels of construction, are not conclusive as to the presence or place of Christian cult before the 4th-century construction of the original church; the same must be said of the excavations beneath the Basilica of Saint anastasia and the title church of San Martino ai Monti. However, those beneath the Basilica of Saints John and Paul do reveal a house church that existed during the late 3rd or early 4th century, when its walls were decorated with Christian figures. At dura europos, the house church (c. 232) contained several rooms, only a few of which were devoted to Christian cult. At Qirq-Bezin, Syria, however, the early 4th-century house seems to have been a primitive model of the later Syrian type of basilica with a hall-like room for ceremonies preceded by an atrium; a room for relics; a bēma, or bishop's chair; and a martyrion.

Funerary monuments and crypts in the cemeteries display evidence of Christian usage early in the 3rd century. The tropaion, or monument, erected over the grave of Saint Peter at the vatican goes back to c. 180; but the hypogeum, or crypt, of the Flavii and that of Ampliatus in the catacomb of Domitilla are later, as are the cappella graeca of the catacomb of Priscilla and the crypt of Lucina on the Via Appia near the catacomb of Callistus, in which many early popes were buried (c. 235). This evidence indicates Christian interest in construction that by the end of the 3rd century had manifested itself in the erection of churches such as that close to the palace of the emperor in Nicomedia, which was destroyed at the outbreak of the persecution of diocletian.

Constantine I. Evidence for the existence of a Christian basilica (c. 306) has been discovered in Aquileia, but the first certain basilica-type construction must be credited to constantine i. In 313 he gave Pope Miltiades a palace at the Lateran for the papal residence and began the construction of a church called later the Basilica of Saint John Lateran. He likewise transformed a hall of the Sessorian palace into a basilica-like church where Saint helena preserved a relic of the true cross (Santa Croce in Gerusalemme).

At the Vatican over the tomb of Saint Peter, Constantine began construction of the ancient Basilica of Saint Peter, and in Palestine he ordered the construction of the Basilicas of the Nativity at Bethlehem, the Annunciation at Nazareth, the Martyrion and Anastasis in Jerusalem, as well as basilicas at Capua, Antioch, Naples, Nicomedia, and Tréves and the Church of the Apostles at con stantinople. Constantine also authorized public funds for building churches in various parts of the Empire, and this work of construction provided all the large Christian centers with basilicas or greater churches in Africa and the Orient during the 4th century.

It was but normal that the Christian churches should have adopted the form of public buildings in the locale where they were constructed, and this was almost certainly the case of the basilicas that were built in Rome and Italy. From the beginning, however, the requirements of Christian cult dictated modifications.

The Christian Basilica

The classical type of Christian basilica was a rectangular building supported by four walls and divided by two or more rows of columns into a central nave and two or more aisles on each side of the nave (ambulatories). The roof of the nave was raised higher than the roof above the aisles. The roofs were of timber, the one above the nave being an isosceles triangle of fairly low altitude crossing the span. The roof timbering was usually hidden by a flat ceiling. The walls supporting the roof above the nave constituted a clerestory whose windows, formed of pierced stone slabs, provided air and a mellow, diffuse light. The exterior was subdued and unadorned so that no architectural extravagance might detract from the spiritual purpose.

Furnishings and Adornment. The only departure from the simple rectangular design was the semicircular apse (concha, tribune), in which stood the throne (cathedra) of the bishop, flanked by seats for the clergy. At the opposite end was the main doorway leading into the nave and smaller doorways leading to the aisles or ambulatories. Beyond the entrance was a quadrangular court (atrium) in the center of which stood a fountain or cistern (cantharus, pluviale ), in which the worshipers washed their hands and lips in preparation for receiving Holy Communion.

At times, the atrium was surrounded by a colonnaded cloister (S. Clemente in Rome, S. Ambrogio at Milan, old Saint. Peter's), but it was often reduced to a narrow portico or vestibule (narthex) as the entrance portico was called in the Eastern Empire. In some basilicas, a transept extended in front of the sanctuary to facilitate the procession of the people to and from the altar. At the juncture of the nave and the transept was a triumphal arch that served to direct and concenntrate attention on the altar The rounded apse was decorated with scenes from the Bible or portrayals of Our Lord in glory surrounded by martyrs.

To the front of the apse, faced by the cathedra, stood the table-shaped altar covered by a permanent canopy (ciborium ) supported on marble columns. Mass was celebrated facing the people. Relics of the saint to whom the church was dedicated were often placed beneath the altar and were visible through a small window (fenestella confessionis ). In some cases, the relics were kept in a crypt opening under the apse and communicating with the altar. The altar was separated from the nave by low marble screens (cancelli ) or by a chancel. The space reserved for the choir at the head of the nave was also railed off by cancelli. On each side of the nave screen were stone pulpits (ambones ) for the reading of the Epistle and Gospel. The congregation occupied the aisles, the men on the

south side and the women on the north. The rear of the nave was reserved for the catechumens, and the penitents were confined to the portico.

Although the basilica was austere in its exterior, it was richly adorned within. The wall spaces above the columns of the nave were covered with glass mosaics. The floor was decorated with marble mosaics in the fashion familiar to the Roman. The baptistery was usually a small domed structure erected near the church and connected with it by a covered passageway. A large basin or pool for immersion (piscina, fons ) was sunk in the floor and provided with steps. When infant Baptism became general, the baptismal font replaced the basin and Baptism was administered in the church.

Liturgical Meeting. An early Christian document, the Syriac Didascalia Apostolorum, presents a description of a liturgical meeting and place of worship and at the same time suggests the problems facing the early Christian architect:

In your assemblies in the holy churches arrange the places of the brethren carefully with all sobriety. Let a place be reserved for the presbyters in the midst of the eastern part of the house, and let the throne of the bishop be placed amongst them; let the presbyters sit with him; but also at the other, eastern side of the house let the laymen sit; for thus it is required that the presbyters should sit at the eastern side of the house with the bishops, and afterwards the laymen, and next the women: that when you stand to pray the rulers may stand first, afterwards the laymen, and then the women also

As for the deacons, let one of them stand constantly over the gifts of the Eucharist, and let another stand outside the door and look at those who come in; and afterwards when you make offerings, let them serve together in the Church. And if a man be found sitting out of his place, let the deacon who is within reprove him, and make him get up and sit in the place that befits him. [J. Quasten, Patrology (Westminster, Md. 1950 ) 2.148.]

The practice of "orienting" the basilica took cognizance of a symbolism that was older than Christianity. The Apostolic Constitutions required that the throne of the bishop be turned to face the east and that the liturgy should be celebrated facing that direction. The Jews and the pagans prayed facing the east, though for different reasons. The pagans, who adored the sun, greeted it at its rising and its setting. Their temples also were oriented. The Jews in their synagogues turned toward the east in their public prayer in order to be facing the Temple of Jerusalem. For the greater number of Jews of the Diaspora, the Temple of Jerusalem was in the east.

By the 5th century, the custom of orienting the basilica had become almost a rule. Socrates the Church historian protested when the altar of a certain church faced the west (Ecclesiastical History 5.22). hagia sophia at Constantinople and Saint Apollinaris at Ravenna have their apses turned toward the east. At Rome there was resistance to this usage, which appeared to have become obligatory. Pope leo i (d. 461) rebuked Christians whom he observed turning toward the east and inclining toward the sun before entering the Basilica of St. Peter (Serm. 27.4). The custom persisted in spite of papal disfavor, and as late as the 9th century Walafrid Strabo noted that orientation was general in the West but not rigorously practiced.

At Rome the so-called Constantinian basilicas gave no indication of orientation; but when they were rebuilt, an effort was made to satisfy the wishes of the people, who had by now attached a mystic interpretation to the custom carried over from paganism. Nevertheless, there was no hesitation on the part of Christians to set orientation aside if there were sufficient reason for doing so. In the late 4th century, almost as many basilicas faced south and west as faced east.

The Christian basilica corresponded so closely to its sacred purposes that it has remained in essence the basis of church architecture. In it the Christian ceremonies attained a level of magnificence while the splendor of the interior satisfied the aesthetic needs of the Christian spirit. All the early basilicas, however, with the exception of Saint Mary Major, Saint Pudentiana, and Saint Sabina, have undergone such extensive changes that their original disposition is difficult to determine.

Bibliography: v. chirone, The House of God through the Ages, tr. k. nottridge, 3 v. (Rome 196061) v.1. a. molien, Dictionnaire de droit canonique, ed. r. naz, 7 v. (Paris 193565) 2:22449. g. downey, "The Architectural Significance of the Use of the Words Stoa and Basilike in Classical Literature," American Journal of Archeology (Concord, N.H. 1885 ) 2d series 41 (1937) 194211. v. mÜller, "The Roman Basilica," ibid. 25061. Liber pontificalis, ed. l. duchesne, v.12 (Paris 188692) v.3 (Paris 1958) 170304. r. c. de lasteyrie du saillant, L'Architecture religieuse en France à l'époque romane (2d ed. Paris 1929). r. lemaire, L'Origine de la basilique latine (Brussels 1911). w. l. macdonald, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (New York 1962). o. marucchi, Basiliques et églises de Rome (Paris 1902). a. p. sheehan, The New Temple of God as Reflected in the Early Church Edifices (Master's dissertation unpublished Catholic University of America 1964). p. testini, Archeologia cristiana (Rome 1958). a. c. a. zestermann, De basilicis (Brussels 1847). l. voelkl and a. p. frutaz, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 2:4045. e. langlotz and f. w. deichmann, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser [Stuttgart 1941 (1950)] 1:122529. t. f. mathews, "An Early Roman Chancel Arrangement and Its Liturgical Functions," Revista di archeologia cristiana (Rome 1924 ) 38 (1962) 7395. r. krautheimer, Corpus basilicarum christianarum Romae (Vatican City 1937 ). t.f. mathews, The Early Churches of Constantinople: Architecture and Liturgy (University Park, Pa. 1970).

[m. c. hilferty/eds.]


views updated May 08 2018


BASILICA (Greek βασιλική, talmudic בָּסִילְקִי), elongated rectangular building divided by colonnades. During the Roman period this term was broadened from the narrow meaning of a meeting place for merchants to any assembly hall. In particular the term referred to a hall used in the philosophers' schools and in wealthy homes for reading and lectures. In these basilicas, the apse was the area set aside for the lecturer or teacher. The entire hall was oriented toward the podium set in the apse, which had a concave roof serving as an acoustical ceiling. This type of basilica was the prototype for the early synagogues and churches. Talmudic sources refer to three types of basilicas, which served as palaces, bathhouses, and treasuries (Av. Zar. 16b). They note that the basilica also served as a hall of justice (Gen. R. 68:12) and as a place for the sale of grain (as in Ashkelon, Tosef. to Oho. 18 end).

An early example of the basilica construction is found in the "Royal Stoa" which Josephus (Ant., 15:411–416) describes as having been erected along the southern wall of the Temple Mount by Herod when he had the Temple rebuilt. This basilica had four rows of pillars each 23 ft. (7 m.) high. According to Josephus, its length was one stadion (606 ft. (185 m.)), but it appears to have been longer – about 920 ft. (280 m.). The central hall was 30 cubits wide and 60 cubits high. The width of the side aisles was 20 cubits, and the height, 30 cubits, giving the structure a true basilical form. Two partially carved stone pillars have been found in Jerusalem which by their size indicate that they were destined for this basilica. However, they were cracked and therefore not used. It is possible that Herod modeled his stoa after the Great Synagogue in Alexandria which has been described as "a kind of basilica with a stoa within a stoa" (Tosef. to Suk. 4:6). Conceivably this expression refers to the central area which was constructed between two colonnades. Another interpretation is that this refers to an additional stoa which extended the width of the hall. Such construction was typical of the early synago-gues, remains of which have been found at Masada and in Galilee.

The Christians adopted the western form of basilica, and most of the early churches (fourth–sixth centuries) were built on that model, although the term "basilica" was no longer in common usage. In the early Christian basilicas, the apse served as the seat of the priests. The altar was set before it, and this part of the building was separated from the remainder by a grille which crossed the width of the church. Two or more rows of columns extended the length of the building, separating the main hall in the center from the narrower aisles at either side.

The first churches in Palestine and elsewhere, e.g., the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, were built according to this design. In the fifth century a vestibule (narthex) was added to the front facade of the basilica churches.

Basilicas were also used for secular purposes in the Jewish community in Palestine. One structure of this nature (135 × 49 ft. (40 × 15 m.)) was found in Bet She'arim. It consists of an enclosed paved court, a vestibule, and a basilica with two rows of five columns each. At the far end of the building, opposite the entry, is a low platform. It would appear that this was a hall of justice in the time of R. Judah ha-Nasi.


C.M. Kaufmann, Handbuch der christlichen Archaeologie (1913); R. Cagnat and V. Chapot, Manuel d'archéologie romaine, 1 (1916), 128–34; H. Kohl und C. Watzinger, Antike Synagogen in Galilea (1916); S. Krauss, Synagogale Altertuemer (1922), 32–102; E.L. Sukenik, Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece (1934); J.B. Ward Perkins, in: Papers of British School at Rome, 22 (1954), 69–89; H.L. Gordon, in: Art Bulletin, 13 no. 3 (1931); M. Avi-Yonah and S. Yevin, Kadmoniyyot Arẓenu, 1 (1955), 200ff.; B. Mazar, in: ymḤey, 21 (1957), 153–9.

[Michael Avi-Yonah]


views updated May 17 2018

basilica (pl. basilicas or basilicae). Roman building-type with a clerestoreyed nave, two or more lower lean-to aisles on each side of the nave, and an apse at the end of the nave, originally for public functions, but later adapted for Christian worship, and the precedent for medieval church design. Early basilicas include that of Trajan in Rome (c. AD 113), and the very important Constantinian basilica of San Pietro, Rome (begun c.333), the model for Christian churches for nearly two millennia. The latter building had two aisles on each side of the nave and a lateral transept between the apse and the nave to accommodate the large numbers of pilgrims wishing to venerate the shrine over the martyrium containing the remains of the Apostle; a narthex in front of the nave and aisles; and a very large colonnaded atrium with a central fountain for ritual washing. Attached to the south transept were two mausolea, both rotundas. Thus San Pietro (destroyed to make way for the present church) had all the prototypes of a medieval cathedral, including the chapter-house attached to the transept, and the cloisters. Basilican therefore means having the characteristics of a basilica.


Krautheimer (1986);
Ward-Perkins (1981)


views updated Jun 11 2018

ba·sil·i·ca / bəˈsilikə/ • n. a large oblong hall or building with double colonnades and a semicircular apse, used in ancient Rome as a court of law or for public assemblies. ∎  a similar building used as a Christian church. ∎  the name given to certain churches granted special privileges by the pope.DERIVATIVES: ba·sil·i·can adj.


views updated May 29 2018

basilica a large oblong hall or building with double colonnades and a semicircular apse, used in ancient Rome as a law court or for public assemblies. The name was then applied to a building of this type used as a Christian Church; in Rome, it designated specifically the seven churches founded by Constantine. Basilica is also the name given to certain churches granted special privileges by the Pope.

Recorded from the mid 16th century, the word comes from Latin, literally ‘royal palace’, and from Greek basiliskē, feminine of basiliskos ‘royal’, from basileus ‘king’.


views updated May 29 2018

basilica Roman colonnaded hall used for public business; also an early Christian church based on this design. The main characteristics of a basilica church, established by the 4th century ad, were: a rectangular plan with a longitudinal axis, a wooden roof and an e end, which was either rectangular or contained a semicircular apse. The body of the church usually had a central nave and two flanking aisles.


views updated Jun 27 2018

Basilica. A Christian church building, derived in form from Roman empire buildings. In R. Catholicism, it is a title given to four (‘major’) churches in Rome, and to several (‘minor’) churches in Rome and elsewhere.


views updated May 14 2018

basilica XVI. — L. — Gr. basilikḗ, sb. use of fem. of basilikós royal, f. basileús king.