Architecture · Medieval Art and Architecture

The Basilica and How It Became a Church

Basilica of Maxentius
Remains of the massive Basilica of Maxentius in Rome, 4th century CE. Photo by Xosema via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

If you’ve read about any type of western architecture from ancient Roman through Renaissance and Baroque, you’ve probably heard the term basilica. In the modern world, the word is often used to refer to a church, such as the Basilica of Saint Denis in France. However, the two words aren’t synonyms, and they were at one time quite different from each other. So, what’s a basilica?

The basilica dates back to classical times. Back in ancient Rome, a basilica was a large, multi-purpose public space for conducting business and deciding legal matters. Ancient basilicas were rectangular, vaulted spaces with separately-vaulted aisles on the sides and a big round projection on one end for an official or statue.

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome
Interior of Santa Maria Maggiore, an early Christian basilica in Rome. Photo by Livioandronico2013 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

After the 313 Edict of Milan legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, the Christian Church started to built official houses of worship. Christians had previously worshipped secretly in private homes, so they didn’t have any established architectural forms to use on their new churches. There are a bunch of reasons why they didn’t choose the classical temple form, the most important reason being that it simply wouldn’t work. Ancient Mediterranean pagan temple existed mainly to contain a large cult statue of a deity. While a few clergy entered the temple to interact with the cult statue, most worship and sacrifice took place outside. Christian worship doesn’t work like that. Small and dark temple interiors couldn’t accommodate a Christian Mass, but the basilica, designed specifically for large numbers of people to gather, would serve the purpose well.

Basilica of Saint Peter's at Night
The Basilica of Saint Peter’s. Photo by Eugene Pivovarov via Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY 3.0).

The basic basilica form has developed and changed a lot over the centuries since Christians appropriated it for their sacred architecture. It’s grown tremendously in height and gained towers, crosspieces, and all sorts of decorations. In fact, you might struggle to recognize it many times. But trust me, it’s present in the world’s most famous churches from Notre Dame in Paris to Saint Peter’s in Rome. In fact, the basilica is still one of the most popular forms for churches today.

If you want to learn about the most famous and significant basilica of all time, I recommend R. A. Scotti’s Basilica, The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006. The books was the impetus, though not the source, for this post.

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