What is the difference between a basilica, a church and a cathedral? Should you care? You can, of course, sail through life oblivious of the distinctions, without any problem. However, if you believe, as we do, that variety is part of what makes life interesting, you may find that being aware of the differences will enrich your experiences and help you understand better the confusing world of ecclesiastic architecture. France, after all, has about 45,000 churches, 100 cathedrals and 81 basilicas.
This is a story that begins with ancient Rome in the era of its early republic, over two millennia ago. At that time the early Romans built large public structures in or near the center of their towns, where important activities, both official and social, took place. Those included courts over which magistrates presided. Such structures were called basilica, and they were usually located next to the public gathering space and market, which was called the forum.
Their structures usually had three doorways at one end of the building, a large rectangular area inside, with aisles on the sides and/or through the middle to allow visitors to enter and exit, and a raised platform at the other end of the room. Officials and important persons sat on the platform, which was often located in an apse.
As the centuries passed, Rome became Christian, and the leaders of the Catholic Church borrowed ideas from the basilica and incorporated them into the places where its faithful gathered to pray, their churches. However, they wanted their structures to have the layout of the cross, the instrument of Christ’s death. So an element, known as the transept, was added to the basilica. The number of apses also often increased, sometime to three or even to five. A term was created to define the top part of the cross: the choir. The three door entry was retained, sometimes presented as three doors next to each other, and other times with three distinct arches next to each other, each replete with doors.
You may have noticed that one of the most important churches in the Western world, St. Peter’s in Rome is called a basilica. So is Sacre Coeur in Montmartre in Paris, as is the church in Vézelay, known as the Madeleine Basilica, not to be confused with the Madeleine Church in Paris. The current St. Denis Cathedral in St. Denis, the suburb of Paris, was originally known as the St. Denis Basilica.
So, what is a cathedral? As the Catholic Church evolved and grew in stature, its leaders evolved a system of ecclesiastic administration, one unit of which was called a diocese (also known as a bishopric), which was presided over, spiritually speaking, by a church official known as, you guessed it, a bishop. Each diocese could have smaller units known as parishes that were administered spiritually by parish priests who answered to their bishop. It was then decided that each bishop should be associated with a spiritual home, which had to be a more important building than a mere church.
Thus was born the idea of a cathedral, the spiritual home of a bishop, an imposing structure, possibly lavishly embellished, the spiritual seat of a bishop. Not for nothing that bishops were regarded as Princes of the Church! You do not normally see more than one cathedral in a community, although you may find several basilica and quite a lot of churches. By the way, St. Denis, which became the first Gothic structure in the world in 1144, was first known as an abbey, then as a basilica until 1966, when it became a cathedral. It is now known as the Basilica and Cathedral of Saint Denis.
The numbers speak. According to the organisation known as the Observatoire du patrimoine Religieux (religious heritage observatory), there are over 45,000 churches in France. Add in abbeys, oratories, chapels, monasteries, convents and basilicas, and you top 70,000 religious structures. As mentioned earlier, only 100 are cathedrals and 81 are basilicas.
As you contemplate those mind-boggling numbers, pity the poor French state, which is today the unhappy owner of all of them, thanks to the cupidity of the French Revolution. At that time the Church was as much the target of the revolution as were the monarchy and the aristocracy, and overt religious practise ceased for many years. The revolutionaries nationalised the assets of its victims, together with the property of the church, which included the contents of all of the religious buildings, bank accounts, and vast tracts of land or all sorts. It was all turned into cash and, in due time, spent.
The upshot is that the French state is saddled with a vast ensemble of ecclesiastic structures that it cannot possibly hope to maintain properly, many of which are crumbling. When Napoleon restored the use of them to the Church he did not simultaneously restitute the responsibility for their maintenance back to the Church. You might describe it as a terrible trade. But it is also true that religious practise is on the wane, and it has been for quite some time. It is not inconceivable that some of the crumbling churches may one day be razed, liberating the land on which they stand, which can then be either sold or applied to other uses.