What Is The Definition Of A Basilica?


What Is The Definition Of A Basilica? Information about the history of bassilica, Roman Basilicas and Christian Basilicas.

BASILICA, is the name given to historic and privileged Boman Catholic churches, chiefly in Rome. In its original Greek use, the word “basilica” meant the house or the court in which the king-archon dispensed justice in Athens. After it had become the distinctive name for a stoa or portico, the word was adopted by the Romans, who, as early as the 2d century B.C., brought it into more common usage for their courts of justice and places of commerce.

Roman Basilicas. The typical Roman basilica, as described by the Augustan architect Vitruvius, had a rectangular plan and was either enclosed by a wall or surrounded by a peristyle. Two or more rows of columns divided the interior lengthwise into aisles, the central one being of greater width and sometimes open to the sky, as in the ancient Greek temple. Sometimes the basilica also had galleries over the side aisles. When the central portion was roofed, its supporting walls were carried up above the side aisles, thus providing a space for windows, or a clerestory (clearstory), to illuminate the spacious interior. At the far end of the building, opposite the main entrance, a raised platform provided space for the seats of the Roman judge and his assistants, or served as a religious shrine. This was called the tribune and was backed by a semicircular apse covered with a semispherical dome.

Examples of Roman imperial basilicas are the ruins of the Basilica Aemilia and the Basilica Julia in the Roman Forum. The latter was begun in 46 B.C. by Julius Ceasar, who named it in honor of his daughter Julia, and was completed by authorization of Augustus Caesar before 14 a.d. It served for both religious and civic functions throughout the imperial period. The Basilica of Constantine, overlooking the Forum, was begun in 308 by Maxentius and completed by Constantine in the« 4th century. It represents the fully developed groined-vaulted structure with double axes.

Christian Basilicas. After the Edict of Milan in 313 gave imperial sanction to Christianity, Constantine encouraged the building of churches. The early Christians either appropriated the pagan basilicas for their worship or built new edifices according to the old models, and so “basilica’ became the usual name for a Roman church.

The Christian high altar replaced the table or shrine for pagan sacrifice or the chair of the Roman praetor in the center of the apse, where the encircling exedra (benches with high solid backs) served as a seat for the clergy. The cathedra, or throne of the bishop, was originally in the center of the exedra, but soon was moved to the side of the altar. Care was taken so that the altar was east of the congregation—toward the holy city of Jerusalem. These ritual areas were given prominence by being elevated upon the tribunal platform, now called the bema, and separated from the nave by a triumphal arch effect. Beneath the raised area an underchapel or crypt served as an especially safe and sacred burial place. In front of the bema, pulpits or ambos were placed on either side. A baldachin or ciborium over the altar served as a focal point. The need for more space for the increasing number of clergy participating in the service led to the extension of the bema on either side. This developed into transepts and gave the symbolic cruciform plan of later medieval churches. The space in front of the altar sometimes was called the presbytery, and the area at the sides of the bema or down in the center of the nave was occupied by the choir (schola cantorum). Eventually all the space reserved for clergy and choir and separated by a screen (cancellus) became known as the chancel.

At the western entrance of most early Christian basilicas there was a forecourt called the atrium. This adaptation from the Roman house probably served as the initial congregating place for many Christian groups. The pool (impluvium), another feature borrowed from domestic architecture, served as the baptismal font and its sheltering arcades, or peristyle, were popular places for memorial tablets and tombs. The side of the atrium adjoining the main body of the church became the entrance vestibule, called the pronaos or narthex, a place originally appropriated to penitents. Only after baptism were the worshipers welcomed into the nave (Latin navis), the “ship” in which the faithful worshiped so as to be borne safely over the sea of life into the haven of eternity.

Famous examples of early Christian basilicas in Rome are San Giovanni in Laterano (begun 324; rebuilt 904-911, 1308-1314, 1362-1378; altered and modernized 1650?-?1655), San Paolo fuori le Mura (founded 386; rebuilt 1823), Santa Maria Maggiore (built 352-355; replaced 432-440; altered and restored 1288-1292), San Pietro in Vincoli (built 442; rebuilt c. 560 and c. 775), San Clemente, (begun before 392; rebuilt 1108; frequently restored), and San Pietro (St. Peter’s) in Vaticano (consecrated 326; reconstructed 1425-1455 and 1506-1626).

The three- or five-aisled basilican plans were retained with slight modifications to suit climatic and material requirements throughout the long medieval period of great church building. The Romanesque architects developed the vaulting and, as at Pisa, used a dome over the intersection of the nave and transept and designed pronounced transepts with apsidal terminations. Multiple chapels and pilgrim processions led to the continuation of the side aisles around the high altar and chancel in an ambulatory, from which additional chapels opened. The combination of ambulatory and radiating chapels formed the chevet choir, a notable feature of the eastern end of Gothic cathedrals in France—a logical derivative of the early classical basilica.


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