Basilica (building type)

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Ruins of the ancient basilica of Maxentius (Rome, 4th century)
Basilica of San Piero a Grado (Pisa, 10th century)

Basilica (from ancient Greek βασιλικὴ στοά basiliké stoá , German 'King's Hall ' , Latin basilica domus ) was originally the name of large magnificent buildings intended for court sessions and commercial transactions (e.g. as a market hall ).

In the course of Christianization , the term was transferred to the church buildings, especially those from the Romanesque period, which were modeled on the ancient basilicas . In art and building history terminology , the term basilica is only used for elongated buildings with a high central nave and low side aisles, in accordance with the early Christian design.

Antique hall buildings

Floor plan of an ancient basilica in Pompeii

In Athens , the official residence of the Archon basileus was traditionally referred to as a basilica, which is why it is often assumed that the building type of the basilica originated in Hellenism and was then taken up and adapted by the Romans. However, Greece evidently received structures that corresponded to the architectural definition of this term only through the Romans; Thus the first datable basilica in Rome by Cato Censorius at the Roman Forum was added to the Hostilia Curia in 185 BC. Erected and called Basilica Porcia . In addition, not all ancient basilicas had the structure that is called a basilica in architecture. The Maxentius basilica with its clearly subdivided side aisles lies on the border with the Abseitensaal , and the Constantine basilica in Trier has no side aisles.

Already in the ancient basilicas came apses before. In the buildings used as market and court halls, they were used to accommodate an image of a ruler.

Several families of the nobility soon followed suit with similar projects: to the south behind the forum lay the Basilica Sempronia , built by Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus the Elder , and on the east side of the forum the Basilica Opimii , a work of the consul from 151 BC. BC, Quintus Opimius .

The Basilica Aemilia , built by Marcus Aemilius Lepidus on the north side of the forum, next to the Stationes Municipiorum (envoy quarters of the municipalities) was particularly splendid . It became after 14 BC. Chr. Completely renewed. Opposite it stood the Basilica Iulia on the southwest corner of the Palatine Hill , begun by Gaius Iulius Caesar and completed by Augustus . It served the sessions of the Centum Viral Court . The largest Roman basilica was the Maxentius basilica , which was built around 310 AD east of the Roman Forum. One of the colossal aisles has been preserved from her.

The Basilica of Catos was a square-shaped room with two narrow sides, one of which, facing the forum, formed the front, the other of which had an exedra or apse niche. The middle room was lined with two-story pillars on all four sides, but not higher than the walkways. In front of the building's facade was a flat-roofed portico .

Later basilica buildings kept the hall building inside, but included a variety of ingredients, such as a double approach with pillar arcades (Basilica Iulia), the front often came to the long side, and the apse fell away, which was also the case with the Basilica of Vitruvius and the one in Pompeii was the case.

The basilica Ulpia , on the other hand, had large exedra on both narrow sides; that of Maxentius (completed by Constantine the Great ) is even more varied , it is completely vaulted, with two apses, one on the narrow side and one on the long side.

Constantine basilica in Trier (4th century), built as an audience hall for the emperor ( Greek: basileus ), but not a basilica in terms of structure, but a pillarless hall

The basilica in Trier , which was restored in 1846 and 1956 and set up for Protestant worship, dates from the same period , whose interior is 69 m long, 31 m wide and 30.5 m high and is closed to the north by an apse and illuminated by a double row of windows. It was originally the audience hall of the Roman emperors who resided in the city in the 4th century.

The oldest design of the basilica, namely the form from the times of the republic, then gained further training in the architecture of the private house. Because the large number of wards and the party meetings in the houses of the great required extensive rooms, there were pillar basilicas in their houses, which mostly retained the plan of the old Basilica Porcia , while the public basilica was expanded and remodeled in the manner indicated.

Basilicas were built in cities throughout the Roman Empire. In Pompeii, for example, three basilicas of moderate size stand side by side on one of the narrow sides of the forum. Vitruvius describes the basilica he built himself in Fano . The widespread use of the building type led early on to the fact that it became the standard form not only for secular, but also for Christian gatherings.

Old Christian basilica with atrium in front

The basilica as the basic form of church construction

Santa Maria in Trastevere ( Rome ), 1140, predecessor ≈ 220
Old Saint Peter in the Vatican, three different ship heights

Architecturally defined, a basilica is a church whose interior is divided into three or more (usually odd-numbered) longitudinal aisles by rows of columns or pillars, the middle of which is significantly higher than the side. The parts of the church that tower over the side aisles are also known as the high nave and high choir . You receive light through the upper aisles or Lichtgaden, i.e. the tall nave or high choir walls pierced by windows above the arcades to the side aisles. The roof of the church consists of a central part with the roof ridge and side parts above the aisles. Several large basilicas have five instead of three long aisles, so that the higher central nave has two lower aisles on each side. These can be the same height, as in Notre-Dame de Paris and Cologne Cathedral , or the inner aisles can be higher than the outer aisles, as in the old Vatican St. Peter's Basilica and in the Milan Cathedral .

Early Christian basilicas

Lateran Basilica : The transept without a crossing acts as a choir
St. Peter in Rome 324, five aisles

Early Christians held during the time of persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire their worship even into the houses. When - in the course of the Constantinian change - Christianity was legitimized, the congregations created large rooms for church services.

The first Christian churches were built in the style of previously profane basilicas; In the apse , where the seat of the judge or emperor was in ancient court or palace basilicas , the cathedra and the subsellia (semicircular seats for the clergy on both sides of the cathedra), usually also the altar, were set up. The basic diagram of an earlier basilica remained unchanged: a long space longitudinally by two rows of columns in three vessels divided, of which the middle, the main vessel, the greater width and called by the niche of the altar (tribune, Apse, absida or Concha ) is completed. The central nave is not only wider, but also raised to a greater height than the side aisles; the windows in the side walls of the central nave ensure that it is lit. The entrance area was often provided with a vestibule, the portico .

The early Christian basilicas were distinguished from pagan temples by their simplicity in their design; a lot of brickwork and little marble, no plastic, no "moving" scenes. The glass mosaics were suggestive ( poster function) but made of comparatively cheap material. Representations of saints as in Ravenna were deliberately not realistic, but rather “disembodied”. The outer walls were only loosened up by the partly large windows. It was not until later that the upper part of the facade was decorated with mosaics.

Larger churches often had a forecourt ( atrium or narthex ) in front of them. In the middle there was a well ( Cantharus ) for cleaning the hands as a symbol of the cleaning of the soul. This corresponds to the arrangement of the earlier house churches, where the larger triclinium for the Eucharistic meals was also located in a highlighted room in a courtyard opposite the house entrance.

Medieval basilicas

As the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christianity quickly established itself as the all-powerful bearer of Western culture. Gradually the character of the basilica also changed in terms of church construction. This applies to both the floor plan and the furnishings.

Cross basilica

Scheme of a cross basilica, crossing highlighted

A cruciform basilica is created by adding a transept of the height and width of the central nave in front of the altar stand, protruding along the width of the building and from its side walls . Such a floor plan has the shape of a cross , but was possibly not originally intended to be symbolic, but rather served to create more space next to the choir during the liturgy . From an aesthetic point of view, the introduction of the transept was very effective, because the interior of the building, before it closes off in the altar niche, appears once again in a grandiose manner and thus emphasizes the sublime importance of the sanctuary .

Where the middle nave joins the transept, a large arched arch was led from one wall to the other, which rests on protruding colossal columns and is abutted on the pillars with which the rows of columns of the ships end here, as well as on the side walls of the transept . This arch is called the triumphal arch , possibly with reference to the idea of ​​Christ's victory over death. In many Gothic churches there was the rood screen at this point, which separates the choir, which is only accessible to the clergy, from the nave. In the course of various reforms of the liturgy , this rood screen was again used as an arch allowing a view and was later removed in some churches.


Perspective sectional drawing of a Romanesque basilica
  • In architecture, the term ship always refers to an elongated part of a building, but in church construction it is quite ambiguous:
    • With “ship” in the sense of the nave , the entire prayer and assembly area of ​​the church building can be meant.
    • “Ship” as a generic term for central nave, side aisle and also transept can designate a part of the interior marked by arcades and outer walls.
    • The ship can be the part of the church space intended for the congregation or the laity , in contrast to the choir , which was traditionally reserved for the clergy .
    • The main nave consisting of the central nave and side aisles, together with the choir, forms the nave in contrast to the transept (transept) or the transepts (north and south).
  • The entrance area at the end of the nave opposite the main altar (mostly in the west) , known as the narthex in early Christian churches , was designed as a particularly massive western building if it was to support bell towers or serve as a bell tower.
  • A pseudo-basilica is a church whose central nave towers over the side aisles by one floor, but whose side walls above the arcades that divide the room are not windowed upper aisles .
  • In the case of a stepped or staggered hall , the central nave is also somewhat higher than the side aisles, but without the formation of an additional storey, but the height areas of the various vaults overlap.
    • If a nave has flat roofs, central nave windows above the side aisles are also possible with the proportions of a relay hall. B. in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona .
  • A staggered basilica is something completely different, namely a basilica with more than three naves, in which the inner aisles are higher than the outer aisles, so that there are three or more different aisles. A significant example of this rare design is the Bourges Cathedral .
  • In a gallery basilica , aisles are filled with galleries that divide them horizontally into an upper and a lower room. These galleries can be easily constructed, but the gallery can also rest on a vault, so that the aisle can optionally have two vault levels. Has.
    • Hall churches with side aisles divided in this way are called gallery halls .
    • A side aisle can also be divided by several galleries above / next to / next to each other.
The Marienkirche in Lübeck is a basilica without a transept


The basilica is next to the hall church (single nave) and the hall church (several naves , which are usually the same height) the most important scheme of the early Christian and medieval church building up to the 15th, north of the Alps also up to the 16th century. In the Romanesque and Gothic styles, most of the churches were built on an oblong plan, including the one in the shape of the Latin cross . Central buildings were a rare exception in the West, but very common in Orthodox churches. Only from the Renaissance onwards were Catholic and Protestant churches built in significant numbers as central buildings.

Special forms

Between the 7th and 10th centuries, three-church basilicas were mostly built within monasteries in Georgia , in which the three naves are separated by room-high partition walls and which are only connected to one another by a door in each wall and often by a passage on the west wall . On both sides of the wide central nave, narrow altar adjoining rooms with round apses on the east wall were created, which presumably served special liturgical purposes.

Overall, pseudo-basilicas are so numerous in the Middle East that one speaks of an oriental basilica instead .

The most important example of a domed basilica is the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The constructive model was the so-called Little Hagia Sophia , a round building with four exedra and a two-story gallery. The central dome of Hagia Sophia stands on four pendentives between four pillars. The basilical nave construction is combined with the character of the central building.

Further development

In the Renaissance and Baroque periods , unobstructed views of the main altar were preferred. The trend was towards hall churches, both for Protestant new buildings and for Catholic ones (see also Counter Reformation ). In the case of new Catholic buildings, rows of side chapels were often set up on the longitudinal walls. These parts of the room below the upper aisles, oriented transversely to the longitudinal axis of the building, are referred to as offsides . In order to absorb the weight of the vault, outer buttresses were no longer used, but pilasters on the inner sides of the outer walls, especially in churches without side walls. Such buildings are called pilaster churches .

The offside room is traced back to the Maxentius basilica in Rome . The Italian remote halls of modern times begin with Alberti's Sant'Andrea in Mantua and with Il Gesù in Rome they become the standard of counter-Reformation church building.

Its distinguishing features are the single-aisle structure and the continuous main beam, under which the transverse chapels open. Its shape does not go back to that of the early Christian basilica, although the external cross-section is the same. That is why basilicas and remote halls usually have the same type of facade with low sides and a raised center, which is usually crowned by a gable . One speaks here of cross-sectional facades .

Basilicas in the Renaissance and Baroque periods often emerged from renovations of medieval buildings.

Only at the time of historicism in the 19th century were basilicas built again. One example is the “early Christian” Jakobikirche in Berlin , built in 1844 by Friedrich August Stüler . In the 19th century, however, there were different technical possibilities and different spatial concepts than in the Middle Ages. In addition to new buildings that were closely based on Byzantine, Romanesque or Gothic models, churches were built with a Gothic exterior, the interior of which was not even divided into naves.


Based on the model of St. Peter's Basilica , from the Middle Ages there was a small subterranean chapel under the main altar of a basilica, which stood in front of the tribune , which also enabled direct access to the holy grave located in the partitioned choir space under the altar. The shape of this chapel (confessio, memoria , crypt ) was different and varied from a simple vault to an architecturally designed room with valuable furnishings.

Examples in Rome are: Lateran Basilica and Saint Paul Outside the Walls , Santa Maria Maggiore , San Clemente , San Pietro in Vincoli , Santa Sabina on the Aventine , Santa Maria in Trastevere and San Crisogono across the Tiber.

An example in Ravenna is the Emperor I. Justinian built Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe .


  • Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig and Vienna 1894, Vol. 2
  • Markus Arnolds: Functions of republican and early imperial forum basilicas in Italy . Dissertation, University of Heidelberg 2007 ( full text )
  • Ursula Leipziger: The Roman basilicas with handling. Research history inventory, historical classification and primary function . Dissertation, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg 2006 ( full text )
  • Annette Nünnerich-Asmus : basilica and portico. The architecture of the porticoed halls as an expression of changed urbanity in the late republic and early imperial times . Böhlau, Cologne et al. 1994, ISBN 3-412-09593-1 (also dissertation, University of Cologne 1992)
  • Hugo Brandenburg : Rome's early Christian basilicas of the 4th century. Heyne, Munich 1979, ISBN 3-453-41255-9
  • Ernst Langlotz : The architectural-historical origin of the Christian basilica. Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen 1972, ISBN 3-531-07172-6
  • Hans Gerhard Evers : The broad direction in the basilica , in: Hans Gerhard Evers: "Death, power and space as areas of architecture". Munich, Neuer Filser-Verlag, 1939, 311 pp., 48 pp. Fig. / 2., verb. u. to num. Fig. Exp. Edition. W. Fink Verlag, 1970
  • Elmar Worgull : Frankenthal's Romanesque monastery basilica in the vicinity of the reform architecture of Cluny and Hirsau . Wernersche Verlagsgesellschaft, Worms 2013. 221 p., With numerous illustrations, photos and plans.
    ISBN 978-3-88462-343-5 .
  • Karlfriedrich Ohr: Vitruvii Basilicana et cetera. Karlsruhe 2019. ISBN 978-3-7315-0850-2 .

Web links

Commons : basilicas  - collection of images, videos and audio files

References and comments

  1. ^ A b Heinrich Laag: Small dictionary of early Christian art and archeology . Reclam, Stuttgart 2001, p. 40.
  2. "Atrium" here in a different location and meaning than the atrium in old Roman houses.
  3. ^ Wilfried Koch : Architectural Style. The standard work of European architecture from antiquity to the present. Orbis Verlag, 1994, p. 47. ISBN 3-572-00689-9
  4. Evers completed his habilitation in 1932 with this thesis. His thesis of a broad direction was controversial at the time. Decades later, Evers saw himself confirmed by the arrangement of the seats at the 2nd Vatican Council.
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on May 21, 2005 .