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What is a Basilica?

The Latin word basilica is derived from Greek, Basilikè Stoá, Royal Stoa, the tribunal chamber of a king, and was originally used to describe a Roman public building, usually located in the forum of a Roman town. Public basilicas began to appear in Hellenistic cities in the 2nd century BC. Basilicas were also used for religious purposes.

In Roman times, a basilica meant an oblong hall with a double row of pillars and a semi-circular apse at the end, used as a court of justice or for formal administration. The remains of a large subterranean basilica dating from the first century were found near  Rome in 1915; the stuccoes on the interior vaulting have survived.  The ground-plan of Christian basilicas in the 4th century was similar to this  basilica, which had three naves, and an apse.

From the time of Constantine after the Roman Empire became officially Christian, the Eastern Roman Empire remained essentially Hellenistic and the Emperor in the East became known as the Basilieus. Greek rather than Latin was the Lingua Franca. The term Basilica came by extensionto refer specifically to a large and important church that had been given special ceremonial rights by the Pope. Thus the word retains two senses today, one architectural and the other ecclesiastical. When the Western Roman Empire disintegrated in the 4th and 5th century the terms remained and the Eastern empire was to survive as the Byzantine Empire for another thousand years.

Many early Christian churches were built in this style, but in Rome the term 'basilica' was reserved for the seven principal churches founded by Constantine. Since the second Vatican Council, a church may be declared a' minor basilica' if it meets a number of criteria: it must be a dignified and attractive building with an active liturgical life. A number of specific feasts and liturgies should be observed, and the basilica should lead in liturgical music. A basilica is entitled to use the papal insignia of St Peter's' crossed keys: you will see these above the main entrance. The Basilica in fact retains many recognizable original Byzantine features such as the cupola, the narthex and the semi-circular apses behind the altars and on the sides, with half cupolas redolent of Hagia Sophia in current day Istanbul.

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