Places Of Worship In Italy – Shrines To Basilicas

San Francisco Assisi

Christianity, particularly Catholicism, plays a huge role in the public life of Italy and although every place of worship may appear to be similar, there are actually some important differences between them. Not only in terms of their construction but also in terms of the functions that they fulfill within the church itself as well as in wider society.

Christianity has five main types of places of worship: chapels, churches, basilicas, cathedrals and shrines. The largest of them is the cathedral, which particularly in the Middle Ages, represented a huge engineering feat that would often take several generations to complete. The building of Notre Dame in France, for example, took almost 100 years from the start to the finish of its construction while the Cathedral of Milan took more than 500 years!

Having an understanding of the different types of Christian places of worship will help you to appreciate their functionality but also to get an insight into the way that they fit into the communities that they serve.

Even if you’re not a religious person, the places of worship in Italy are fascinating to visit, not only to see the incredible artwork and sculptures that they are full of, but also to attend the occasional service with the congregation. You’re always welcome to attend most services in the places of worship in Italy, and as long as you are respectful and open minded you can get a lot out of the experience. I am not a religious person, but as an Expat in Italy, I have always been very interested in knowing and understanding the history of these different places of worship.

The Origins Of The Christian Church – House Churches.

In the early Apolystic days, shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, most Christians would celebrate the life of Christ by sharing a meal together. They would meet in people’s houses and share a meal, as Jesus had taught them to do at the Last Supper. There were no architectural or decorative requirements except that the house had a dining room and a table large enough to fit the attendees. This shared meal became known as the ‘The Lord’s Supper’ or, later, the ‘Eucharist’, and was a kind of thanksgiving meal.

It’s worth remembering that for the first 300 years, it was illegal and punishable by death to practice Christianity in the Roman Empire. Therefore, it was essential for Christians to meet in secret in each other’s houses; meaning that public places of worship were unthinkable. Christians also used secret symbols, such as the fish, to let each other know that they shared a common faith. These early gatherings took place in what became known as ‘House Churches’. There were famous House Churches scattered around the Empire, including the home of Aquila and Prisca in Ephesus and the home of Philemon in Colossae.

During the 3rd Century BC, Christians first started to obtain specially designated buildings for their meetings. These properties were either bought or gifted to the Christians. One of the surviving examples of such a property is at Dura-Europos on the River Euphrates where a house was converted into a place for Christians to congregate. Archeological evidence shows that the house was built in around 200 BC and then later converted in 231 BC; when it was enlarged by knocking down walls to make more space for the congregation. In these early days the House Churches had no altars, decorations or special temples; something which would change in the 4th Century once Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire.

The Beginning Of The Christian Era In The Roman Empire – 313 BC.

In 313 BC the Emperor Constantine officially made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. From this moment forward Christians no longer had to hide their faith but it also meant that the old House Churches were quickly superseded by specifically designed public churches.

Around ten years after designating Christianity the state religion, Constantine instructed that a basilica be built in Jerusalem. A basilica, in the Roman Empire, was a type of building that combined religious ceremonies with official state business and administration. The basilica would be used as an administrative meeting hall as well as a site of religious worship.

From this time onwards, the physical infrastructure of the Christian church expanded rapidly, with a massive proliferation of places of worship around the Empire, particularly in Italy.

Following is a brief overview of the types of places of worship in Italy and their similarities and differences:

A Church.

The word church originates from the Ancient Greek work, ‘kuriakos’, which literally means ‘of the Lord’. It is for this reason that you will often hear a church being described as ‘the house of the Lord’ or ‘the house of God’. A church is a place where the faithful can gather together and worship God in a specially designated space, that is often ornately decorated and the central focus of a religious community.

A church can also be defined as a place which has a permanent, unified, congregation of faithful worshippers; which is overseen by a priest. The ‘church’ can actually refer to both the building itself as well as the people who worship there; although usually, it refers to the building itself. In other cases, a church can refer to an outdoor space where meetings of a congregation occur, although in Italy this is quite rare.

The Santa Lucia church, in Montepulciano, is a fantastic example of a beautiful, Baroque era church that was founded, or as it’s known in Christianity, ‘consecrated’, in 1653. Inside the church you’ll find an amazing painting by Giovan Battista Alessi among other tasteful decorations.

A Chapel.

A chapel is a Christian place of worship however unlike a church, it has no priest and there is no permanent, continuous, congregation. A chapel refers only to the physical building itself which is usually much smaller than a church; sometimes being as small as a single room!

A chapel may be located anywhere, for instance, there could be a chapel within a church; but you can also find chapels in airports, hospitals and other public buildings in Italy and elsewhere. The chapel is a quiet place where Christians can go to pray or worship on their own, or with friends and family, at any time. There will be no priest there though, as mentioned, to give advice or counsel; so a chapel is a space for personal worship rather than collective worship in a congregation, as takes place in a church.

The Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta is an iconic place of worship that’s located in the Val d’Orcia and is one of Italy’s 58 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The chapel sits between quintessential Tuscan rows of cypress trees and is said to have been built there because the Virgin Mary showed herself to a young shepherdess in the 14th Century.

A Cathedral.

A cathedral is similar to a church but instead of a priest it is run by a bishop; who is higher up the church hierarchy than a priest. A cathedral is an extremely important place of worship and is the primary church in a given diocese. A ‘diocese’ is the area in which a bishop has jurisdiction over the other priests and members of the congregations.

The word cathedral comes from the Latin, ‘cathedra’, which literally means ‘a seat’. The cathedral, therefore, is the seat of the church’s power within that diocese. Of course, the ultimate cathedral is in the Vatican, where the Pope, or the ‘Bishop of Rome’, has jurisdiction over all Catholics in Italy and around the world.

For a church to qualify as a cathedral, contrary to popular opinion, there is no need for it to be large or to have elaborate decorations. The only requirement for a church to qualify as a cathedral is for it to be run by a bishop. However, practically speaking, most cathedrals are architecturally impressive structures.

One of Italy’s most impressive cathedrals is the Milan Cathedral, which is dedicated to the Nativity of Saint Mary. Incredibly, it took almost 600 years to complete the cathedral, with work beginning in 1386 and only being finally completed in the mid 1960s! The Milan Cathedral is the second largest cathedral in Europe and its spectacular Gothic design and rows of ornate spires truly display the splendor of the Catholic faith.

A Basilica.

A basilica is an important church that has been specially designated by the Pope and can therefore be used for certain ceremonial purposes, unlike other churches and cathedrals. Architecturally speaking, a basilica is defined as a rectangular building with two or more aisles, although in reality it only matters whether the Pope has designated the building as a basilica for it to be regarded as such.

There are two main kinds of basilica; minor basilicas and major basilicas. There are four major basilicas which are all found within the Diocese of Rome, and overseen directly by the Pope. The four major basilicas are St Peter’s Basilica, Archbasilica of St John Lateran, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls. Minor basilicas are found all over the world and as of 2020 there were just over 1,800 in total; all of which were designated in the past by one of the Popes.

The most famous basilica in the world is St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City. This is one of the four major basilicas and is the seat of the Pope of Rome. It’s the largest church in the world and it’s huge central dome is a prominent feature on the city’s skyline.

A Shrine.

In Catholicism a shrine is a building , structure or church which houses a special relic, object of veneration or image of a Saint or Martyr. The shrines are places of worship where pilgrims or other faithful Christians can go to pray and seek inspiration.

For a place or building to be considered a shrine it must be ordained by a local church official. If a shrine is to be considered a National Shrine it must also be approved by Episcopal Conference and for it to be raised to the status of an International Shrine it must be approved by the Pope.

There are shrines all over the world with many of them being in far flung corners of Christendom. The Shrine of Saint Padre Pio is located on the pilgrim route to San Giovanni Rotondo. Saint Padre Pio was reputed to have been able to read the souls of men and as a result, after his death, his body was placed in a purpose built church known as the Church of Our Lady of Grace. Recently another church was built nearby to house the many pilgrims who visit the site, known as the Padre Pio church.

The Differences And Similarities Between Places Of Worship In Italy.

Each different type of place of worship in Italy gives Christians the opportunity to get closer to God; however, they do serve different functions. There is also a clear hierarchy in the Catholic Church with the Holy See and the Pope sitting at the head of the Universal Church.

The Vatican and the four major basilicas are the highest run of the ladder after which comes the minor basilicas. Below this, the cathedrals are next in the hierarchy of authority within the Catholic church and then beneath them are the churches. Chapels and shrines are places where pilgrims and other Christians can go on their own, or with a group, to venerate a Saint or simply to have some reflective time to pray.

All of the places of worship in Italy have their own unique stories which are always interesting to find out about before you visit; but even if you stumble unexpectedly upon a lovely church or a small village chapel then you should always take a moment to have a little look around!

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