Difference Between Basilica and Cathedral

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: May 31, 2023


Difference Between Basilica and Cathedral

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With approximately 2.2 billion adherents worldwide, Christianity is one of the world's largest faiths. It is a single faith that has served as the backbone of western civilizations and molded the fate of most of the western globe. In Christianity, there are various sites of worship known as cathedrals, churches, basilica, and even shrines, which confuses both non-Christians and many Christians. This article seeks to define the distinctions between a cathedral and a basilica to clear the readers' thoughts.

Basilica vs. Cathedral

The key distinction between a Basilica and a Cathedral is that a Basilica is the greater Church authority, and it is split into Basilicas major and Basilicas minor. A Cathedral is a Church that is solely managed by the bishop in an area within the bishop's jurisdiction.

Difference Between Basilica and Cathedral in Tabular Form

Parameters Of ComparisonBasilicaCathedral
Characteristic DefinitionPope-designatedA bishop's residence
Architecture TypesLong rectangle with a raised section on the opposite side of the entrance.Because of the activities being conducted, the architecture of a cathedral is rather enormous.
Common purposeMaintain courts and other governmental and public services.Act of worship, art, music, higher education, and civic leadership
The geographical distributionThere is no restriction per city or area.One (sometimes two) per area.
Worldwide totalAround 1800 Basilica are there around the world.Approximately 3,400 Cathedrals are there in the world. 

What Is a Basilica?

The term cathedral is derived from the Latin cathedra, which means bishop's seat. Thus, the bishop's seat is located in a cathedral, which is an important church in the region, maybe the most significant in the diocese. When faced with a quandary, keep in mind that all venues, regardless of their titles, are churches where Christians gather to worship Jesus. The title cathedral tells it all: it is the home church of the bishop or archbishop in the Catholic Church.

In the Roman era, basilicas were mostly for public use, and with plenty of aisle seating, they were a popular trade and marketplace, as well as a place for various business gatherings. However, as time passed, they were increasingly employed for court hearings and other official and public occasions.  Basilicas are usually long rectangles with an elevated section and a high domed roof at the end opposite the entrance entryway.

However, in the sixteenth century, architects and builders began to base many distinct churches on the basilica style, which persisted until the 1950s. The pope must confer the title of the basilica on a church. There are no preconditions or criteria, and each choice is determined on its own merits.

However, the majority of basilicas are granted their title for reasons of cultural significance, but the reasons are unique to each basilica, and once given, the title cannot be taken away.

There are four main basilicas in Rome, all of which are located in the city.

They are St. John Lateran Archbasilica, St. Peter's Basilica, St. Paul Outside the Walls Basilica, and Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica. The rest of the world's basilicas are "minor basilicas," and they are not restricted to one per city; many cities have many, notably Buenos Aires, which has fifteen.

The rest of the world's basilicas are "minor basilicas," and they are not restricted to one per city; many cities have many, notably Buenos Aires, which has fifteen. While a basilica is not strictly needed, the name has become synonymous with the architectural style of basilica churches erected in the previous 500 years.

Roman Republic

Long, rectangular basilicas with interior peristyles were a staple of Roman urbanization, frequently forming the architectural backdrop to the city forum and serving a variety of functions. Beginning with Cato in the early second century BC, Roman Republic politicians competed by erecting basilicas carrying their names in the Forum Romanum, the heart of ancient Rome. Outside the city, basilicas signified Rome's dominance and were a common feature of Roman colonial life in the late Republic beginning around 100 BC. The Basilica of Pompeii, erected in 120 BC, is the oldest extant basilica. Basilicas served as the administrative and commercial hubs of large Roman communities, serving as the "quintessential architectural manifestation of the Roman government." There were usually different offices and chambers adjacent to it containing the curia and a shrine for the tutela. Basilicas, like Roman public baths, were frequently utilized to showcase honorific statues and other sculptures, complementing the outside public areas and thoroughfares. Aside from the Basilica Porcia in the Forum Romanum, the Basilica Aemilia and the Basilica Sempronia were erected in 179 BC and 169 BC, respectively. In the Republic, two types of basilicas were erected across Italy from the mid-second to early first century BC: either they were virtually square, as at Fanum Fortunae and Cosa, with a 3:4 width-length ratio, or they were more rectangular, as at Pompeii's basilica, with a 3:7 ratio.

Antiquity (late)

Several religious cults borrowed the basilica's aisled-hall design in late antiquity. A massive basilica contained the city's synagogue, which served the local Jewish diaspora. New religions, like Christianity, required room for congregational worship, and the basilica was converted for worship by the early Church. Basilicas were accepted for Christian liturgical usage after Constantine the Great because they could house a huge number of people. The early churches of Rome were basilicas with an apsidal tribunal and employed the same column and timber roofing construction techniques.

Maxentius Basilica

The 4th-century Basilica of Maxentius, built by Maxentius between 306 and 312 and finished by Constantine I according to Aurelius Victor's De Caesaribus, was an invention. Earlier basilicas had primarily had wooden roofs, but this basilica employed cross-vaults built of Roman bricks and concrete instead to create one of the ancient world's biggest covered spaces: 80 m long, 25 m broad, and 35 m high.  The vertices of the greatest Roman examples of cross-vaults were 35 m.  The vault was supported by 14.5 m tall marble monolithic columns. The foundations can be up to 8 meters deep. Brick latticework ribs (Latin: bipedalism) supported the vault, producing lattice ribbing, an early kind of rib vault, and spreading the weight uniformly throughout the vault's span. Similar brick ribs were used to hold walls on top of the vault in the Baths of Maxentius on Palatine Hill. It was the final municipal basilica erected in Rome and was also known as the Basilica Constantiniana, 'Basilica of Constantine,' or Basilica Nova, 'New Basilica.'

The central nave of the basilica was reached by five doorways that opened from an entry hall on the eastern side and ended in an apse on the western end.  During a second building effort, a smaller apse with niches for statues was built to the center of the north wall, while the western apse contained a gigantic acrolithic figure of the emperor Constantine enthroned.  Fragments of this monument can currently be seen in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museums' Palazzo dei Conservatori on Capitoline Hill. Another monumental entrance was built and decorated with a portico of porphyry columns opposite the northern apse on the southern wall.

The Constantinian Era

Eusebius used the word "basilica" (Ancient Greek: romanized: basilisk) to refer to Christian churches in the early fourth century. In future centuries, as before, the word "basilica" referred in Greek to municipal, non-ecclesiastical buildings, and only in rare circumstances to churches.

Churches were still basilican in shape, with an apse or tribunal at the end of a nave with two or more aisles being the norm. The entrance might feature a narthex (often with an exonarthex) or vestibule, as well as an atrium, and the interior could contain transepts, a pastophorion, and galleries. However, the basic layout with clerestory windows and a timber truss roof remained the most common church style until the 6th century.

The nave would be kept clear for clergy liturgical processions, with the laity in the galleries and aisles on either side. The function of Christian churches was similar to that of civic basilicas but very different from temples in contemporary Graeco-Roman polytheism. Pagan temples were primarily entered by priests, and their splendor was visible from the outside. In contrast, the main ornamentation within Christian basilicas was visible to the congregants admitted inside.

During the rites, Christian priests did not mingle with visitors, but pagan priests were compelled to make individual sacrifices in the more chaotic milieu of the temple precinct, with the temple's facade as a backdrop. The interiors of basilicas built for Christian purposes were frequently painted with frescoes, but the wooden roofs of these structures often rotted and failed to preserve the fragile murals within. As a result, a significant portion of the early history of Christian art was lost, which would have attempted to explain early Christian concepts to the mostly illiterate Late Antique population.

On the outside, basilica church complexes included cemeteries, baptisteries, and fonts that "defined ritual and liturgical access to the sacred," elevated the social status of the Church hierarchy, and complemented the development of a Christian historical landscape. Constantine and his mother Helena were patrons of basilicas in significant Christian sites in the Holy Land and Rome, as well as Milan and Constantinople.

To be designated as a cathedral, a church must be the primary structure from which a bishop presides over his diocese (the geographic area he looks after and protects).

The Latin word for the bishop's chair housed within these buildings is a cathedral, which means a seat in Latin and must be present to grant a church the title of a cathedral.

Cathedrals are more sporadically dispersed over the world since there is only one bishop per diocese.

However, out of about three thousand four hundred cathedrals worldwide, there are approximately three hundred and twenty-two co-cathedrals, which are dioceses having two cathedrals for the pope to govern from.

The first cathedrals' origins and features

The history of cathedrals begins in 313 when Emperor Constantine the Great personally accepted Christianity and launched the Church's Peace. Indeed, there could not have been "cathedrals" before that era, because there were no Christian "cathedrae" until the 4th century; bishops were never seated when conducting congregational prayer, but instead presided standing on an elevated platform or pulpitum. The word "ascending the platform," ad pulpitum venire, became the common expression for Christian ordination in the third century. During the siege of Dura Europos in 256, a full Christian house church, or Domus ecclesiae, was entombed in a defensive bank and survived when excavated to wall-top height in parts.

The Dura church was built out of a big urban courtyard house of conventional design, with two rooms pushed together to construct an assembly hall capable of holding 60-75 standing, and a tank put in a room on the opposite side of the courtyard as a baptistery, with magnificent wall paintings above it. During the siege of Dura Europos in 256, a full Christian house church, or Domus ecclesiae, was entombed in a defensive bank and survived when excavated to wall-top height in parts. The Dura church was built out of a big urban courtyard house of conventional design, with two rooms pushed together to construct an assembly hall capable of holding 60-75 standing, and a tank put in a room on the opposite side of the courtyard as a baptistery, with magnificent wall paintings above it. The enormous chamber did include a raised pulptum at one end, large enough for one person to read, preach, and rule from in turn, but it was too low to be surmounted by a throne and too tiny to house an altar. Otherwise, there was no ornamentation or distinguishing elements in the big space.


The layout and location of the early cathedrals varied greatly from city to city, while most, like Aquileia, were located within the city walls but distant from the urban center; some components are virtually always present.


Despite wide variations in institutional structures and larger historical contexts over time, the key functions established for the first cathedrals have tended to remain as distinctive cathedral functions down the centuries: a regular cycle of choral prayer; providing a forum for civic leadership; a commitment to higher learning; and the promotion and dissemination of music.

Main Differences Between Basilica and Cathedral in Points

  1. A church may only be given the title of basilica by a pope, whereas a cathedral is where the bishop of a diocese lives and tends after his subjects.
  2. In general, basilicas are long and rectangular in design, with a raised chamber and high ceiling at the opposite end to the entryway, whereas cathedrals are huge, open structures.
  3. Basilicas house courtrooms and other public and official services, whereas cathedrals house prayer, music, higher study, and civic leadership.
  4. There is no limit to the number of basilicas that can exist in a particular location, and some towns have as many as fifteen. In every particular diocese, cathedrals are confined to one or two.
  5. Today, roughly 1,800 Christian basilicas and 3,400 cathedrals are intact across the world.


Basilicas and cathedrals are two types of Christian churches that indicate the sort of activities performed in the church as well as the overall design and layout of the edifice. A cathedral houses the bishop of a particular diocese and has a great chair (or cathedra in Latin), whereas a basilica is merely named after the pope. There are nearly twice as many Christian cathedrals as basilicas across the world, and many of them are still important tourist attractions or religious pilgrimage destinations today.


  • Basilica - Wikipedia
  • Cathedral - Wikipedia


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"Difference Between Basilica and Cathedral." Diffzy.com, 2023. Tue. 03 Oct. 2023. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-basilica-and-cathedral-1145>.

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