Friday, June 11, 2010


We have been talking about basilicas as building designated by the Church to be such. But there is also a basilica style of architecture. As opposed to a designation which would also have in it the symbols of a church thusly titled, it is the manner of construction that makes these churches basilicas. (Not all basilicas are of basilica architecture and not all churches built of basilica architecture are basilicas!)

Basilicas began their lives as public buildings during Roman times. Found at the center of town they were large gathering spaces in which business and legal transactions took place. There were pillard aisles down the side to provide space for booths and such. The roof over the central area was raised in order to allow light in through a clerestory. At one end there was an apse, usually having a dais where the local magistrate would sit and conduct business.

When Christianity became legal (and the official religion of the empire) in the fourth century, large buildings for worship needed to be built/utilized. The design of pagan temples would not do. They were not intended for such things. Sacrifices were made out of doors with the temple as a background. The temple itself was meant to hold an image of the god and the treasury – not large meeting spaces for ritual. But the basilica fit the bill! There was the large open space for people to pray together and Christ and the altar of sacrifice took the place of the local magistrate in the dais which was already designed to be seen by all.

This type of building is still widely in use today in the Church. The question must be asked, “Why?” The answer is simple: because it works. The liturgy grew up around the basilica style floor plan. That is why often other attempts at modern architecture often fail in one way or another. An architect friend once said to me, “The mark of a great church is not that it works for Sunday Mass, but that it works well for the Easter Vigil.” The basilica style done well is not the only one that does this of course but it does work and does so brilliantly.

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