Basilicas in Major and Minor (Dennis Aubrey)

Today’s post is based on a discussion with Jun Li, a lecturer at Jiangnan University in Wuxi, Jiangsu, China, about 100 miles from Shanghai. He wanted to know what makes a church a basilica and how it differs from a cathedral.

Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron)  Photo by PJ McKey

Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by PJ McKey

Anyone who is familiar with Christian architecture in the west knows of the important basilicas, both ancient and modern. We have previously written of what the basilica in its ancient form was and how it became the basis of the Christian church in the west. The Roman basilica was taken as a model for early Christian churches in Rome. At the time it was used for different public purposes (as a market but also as a tribunal, with the judge seated on a raised platform in the rounded apse), but was admirably suited for Christian worship because the structure was compatible for public worship of large numbers of people at a service and because there were many available for use. Over time, the basilica became the fundamental form of western Christian churches.

Nave, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Basilique Saint Sernin, Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But what exactly is a basilica in terms of the church? Why is a particular church designated a basilica?

A basilica is a large and important church that has been given special ceremonial rights by the Pope. The major basilicas are found in Rome; the Arcibasilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano is the most important, followed by the Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano, Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le Mura, and Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. These are the most important churches in the Catholic world, including cathedrals, which are the seats of bishops. Each of these major basilicas is tied closely to the papacy and each contains a throne for the Pope.

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

While the “major” basilicas in Rome are the most significant to the Church, the “minor” basilicas have been acknowledged for their importance. They have always been designated as basilicas by the Pope. In the last two centuries, the Pope has made these appointments based on recommendations from the Sacræ Cardinalium Congregationes, the Roman Congregation that collaborates with the pontiff in the administration of the affairs of the Church. The description of a worthy church is “The petition must show that the church in question is ancient, at least in a relative sense. Or if it has not the dignity of age, it must at least be truly “basilican,” that is, “regal” in character. It must, of course, be a permanent church, and solemnly consecrated; and it must be large, spacious, and rich in its appointments. From a devotional standpoint, it must be in some way or other a notable religious center. If it is a shrine by reason of its possession of the body of a saint, so much the better. If it is not distinguished for its relics, it should at least be distinguished for its paintings, images, etc. ”

Nave of Basilique de Saint Paul-Serge, Narbonne (Aude)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave of Basilique de Saint Paul-Serge, Narbonne (Aude) Photo by PJ McKey

There are many minor basilicas, which in the past were usually important pilgrimage churches like Sainte Madeleine de Vézelay, Sainte Foy de Conques, or Saint Sernin de Toulouse. In current practice, designating a church as a basilica is primarily ceremonious, paying tribute to a building distinguished by its “sacred magnificence.” For us at Via Lucis, these churches are a reminder of the great pilgrimage of Santiago Compostela and the resurgence of Europe in the Middle Ages.

11 responses to “Basilicas in Major and Minor (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. This story of the popes as experts in the intricacies of architectural history is fascinating, Dennis, and completely new to me – and certainly comes from a different planet form that where architectural history normally resides.

    It might, however, confuse Jun Li. For (s)he will surely see, in the real world especially in Italy (the context of the pope as well as of the ‘western’ Christian church):

    1. ‘basilica’ historically is exactly as you first describe it, indicative partly but not exclusively of inhabitation, but certainly of basic shape.
    2. ‘basilica’ is the world used in everyday parlance in Italy more or less synonymous with ‘duomo’ but actually more widely, to mean a parish church of some importance. This has nothing to do with whether it actually is a ‘basilica’ or not – for example the “Basilica of S Vitale, Ravenna” is an archetypal example of a totally non-basilican church.
    Thus if you say “basilica” to someone interested in such places, they immediately picture in their mind’s eye a certain form, shape. If you say “basilica” to an everyday Romasn Catholic in an Italian street the picture in their mind’s eye is of ‘church’ but not any specific shape.

    Quite differently, however, I would like to nuamce your history slightly – I think first Christian churches were of two sorts, neither to do with basilicas. There were meetings for worship in ‘house churches’ and meetings around graves, tombs and (mainly after 313) the shrines of martyrs/leaders/saints. These latter were centred on the shrine, and centralised churches are prominent among early post 313 building – but as Christianity blossomed and large congregations grew, the basilica form – as you say – fitted their purpose very well, though to commemorate the start and end of our days the central form retained important appeal, from baptistries to pilgrimage sites. (And then there is S Vitale in Ravenna…)

    Just a thought, off the top of my head, and if I looked it up I might have to temper it with conditions.

    Thanks anyway, Dennis, for the tales of the popes of which I was completely ignorant (when did this start, I wonder?) – and if you keep this post, do try to heal its bifurcation.


    • Thanks for all of this, John, great contribution. My understanding of the basilican church is that it became popular after Constantine’s Edict of Milan, which made it possible to publicly participate in the full liturgy. Prior to that, the churches were in homes and in tombs.

  2. Does the Pope actually “sit” at his throne at the Basilicas or is it more of a symbolic inclusion in accordance to the Basilicas’s designation?

  3. Dennis,

    Just to clarify the query regarding major and minor basilicas.

    1. Basilica refers to an architectural form associated with the Roman Empire. Its classical design a large oblong building with a central space lit by a series of windows high on the walls (clerestory) and with lower aisles on the sides divided from the central space (nave) by columns or piers or arcades. There is usually an apse at one end (sometimes at both ends). In ancient Roman use the apses housed the magistrates on a platform or dais. Other business (money changing, banking, trade, politics) was conducted in the middle of the nave and the aisles were essentially covered passageways. Imperial Roman basilicas might omit the aisles – such as the Aula Palatina in Aachen, Germany.

    2. When Christianity was freed from persecution by Constantine, large new places of worship were required for rapidly growing congregations. The basilica seemed to fit the requirements of Christian worship. Older civil basilicas were sometimes pressed into service by the church (such as the basilica at Leptis Magna in modern Libya). The form was also copied for new congregational churches. Thus a basilica was a building employed for congregational participation in the liturgy by the Christian Church. Shrines to martyrs usually took the form of a round or octagonal building – based on a grand mausoleum. In Jerusalem the principal Christian building was the Anastasis (or Resurrection) Basilica for congregational liturgy in a classic basilican form. Behind this was a courtyard or peristyle which gave access to the Rock of Golgotha (site of the Crucifixion) and then came the Anastasis Rotunda (over the Holy Sepulchre itself). Thus the pilgrim progressed from the basilica to the peristyle to the rotunda and then back to the basilica, where the liturgy took place. The modern Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem preserves the shape of the Rotunda and occupies part of the site of the peristyle, but has lost the basilica.

    3. In Rome, as noted in the post above, there are four Major Basilicas – St John in the Lateran (the Lateran Basilica), St Peter’s (the Vatican Basilica), St Paul without the Walls (the Ostian Basilica) and St Mary Major (the Liberian Basilica). St Peter’s was so heavily rebuilt in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that it no longer preserves the original basilican plan. All the others do preserve the original plan (St Mary Major is the best of them in my opinion!). These churches are specifically associated with the Pope as Bishop of Rome. St John in the Lateran doubles up as the cathedral of Rome – it was the first one created by Constantine for the Bishop of Rome. These four were considered Patriarchal Basilicas – the Pope being the Patriarc of the West, until Pope Benedict XVI dropped that title and renamed them as Pontifical Basilicas.

    4. Three other ancient churches in Rome are also considered basilicas, but are deemed to be minor compared with the four named above: San Lorenzo fuori le mura, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and San Sebastiano fouri le mura.These are considered ‘Papal’ as opposed to Pontifical Basilicas (they have a somewhat lower status – but still important). The four major basilicas and these three minor basilicas were the traditional seven churches of Rome that pilgrims hoped to visit on their pilgrimages. Incredibly, in 2000, Pope John Paul II removed San Sebastiano from the list and inserted the Santuario delle Madonna della Divine Amore as the seventh church.

    5. Other churches in Rome, such as San Clemente, are also minor basilicas. The status of a minor basilica is given by the pope and traditionally confers certain privileges. Most minor basilicas today are usually designated pilgrimage churches, although some are honoured for their antiquity or historical associations. The Irish basilica of Our Lady of Knock is a polygonal structure that is designated as a pilgrimage site. It is important to note that a basilica might double as a cathedral, for example the Euphrasian Basilica in Porec in Croatia. Thus a minor basilica is a reference to a STATUS conferred on a church by the Pope (or by extremely ancient tradition), but is not necessarily designed in a basilican form.

    6. Does the pope still use the cathedra in the major basilicas? Very likely! I noticed that Pope Francis celebrated the Ash Wednesday Mass in the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome (a minor basilica restored to something like its original form – check it out!). He used the marble cathedra (or ‘throne’) in the apse during the mass.

    7. Ravenna boasts of a number of important buildings: San Vitale is a polygonal building granted the status of a basilica but which was not designed as a basilica. Nearby are San Apollinaire Nuovo and San Apollinaire in Classe, both of which are designed as classic basilicas (nave, apse and aisles).

    I hope this helps.

  4. Ah well this is where the word ‘cathedral’ comes in… for ‘cathedral’, in English, is the adjective from ‘cathedra’; the cathedra is the (Arch)bishop’s seat which stands in his church, that church therefore being henceforward called a ‘cathedral’ church or later shortened just to cathedral.

  5. Well, the use of the word cathedra above does confuse issues. Is that central seat in the apse of a basilica actually a cathedra or just a chair for the cleric or prelate presiding at the liturgy? It seems that ‘cathedra’ could refer to any throne-like chair in the apse/chancel/presbyterium of a church. But if we switch to Latin and examine the phrase ‘sede vacante’ which is used when a pope dies (or as happened in 2013, resigns) the ‘chair of St Peter’ (that is the bishopric of Rome) is said to be ‘sede vacante’. The word sede or sedis gives us the word ‘See’ in English – referring to the office of the bishop in a particular diocese. Cathedra is seen as eponymous with Sedis/See, so the principal church in the diocese is usually called a cathedral since it houses the bishop’s official liturgical chair from which he is supposed to preach to the whole diocese. Yet the term cathedral, or variations of it, might not actually be used to name the building – Dom in German speaking countries, Duomo in Italy (from Dominus in Latin), Se and Seo in Portugal and Spain (from Sedis in Latin). (In ancient Ireland, the word Domhnach was to describe a large church – often rendered ‘Donny…’ by the English, hence Donnybrook near Dublin. It is not certain if the word described an episcopal church. We also use the word Ardeaglais from ‘ard’ meaning high or important and eaglais meaning ecclesia/eglise or church. In modern Irish an Ardeaglais is a cathedral.) One thing to remember is that the term cathedral does NOT indicate the size of a church!

    I suspect that the term cathedra can be used to describe the throne-like seat at the centre of an apse in a basilica, but without conveying the status of a cathedral on the building. Basically the often interchangeable use of various words makes understanding the status of various churches both interesting and confusing – especially if the building’s history is unknown. Here in Ireland we are swamped with cathedrals – many of them very small and located in very small places. This is a relic of the excessive number of Irish dioceses created in the 12th century reforms. (We traditionally had FOUR archbishops – poor old England had to get by with just two!) To make matters worse in Ireland – the nineteenth century saw the building of new cathedrals in every diocese to accommodate the Roman Catholic bishops, while the Anglican/Episcopalian Church of Ireland amalgamated its dioceses, without downgrading the old cathedrals, thus giving every Anglican bishop several cathedrals in which to be enthroned!

    • Tony, this kind of response is one of the things that I love about Via Lucis. I’m going to try to find a way to turn your two responses and John McKean’s into a follow-up post. Thank you so much.

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