Two dimensional (2D) periodic photonic nanostructures, fabricated by nanoimprint lithography (NIL) and dry etching on the front surface of crystalline silicon (c-Si) layers, are investigated experimentally and theoretically in order to characterize their optical properties and demonstrate their relevance to photovoltaic (PV) applications. Nanoimprint lithography is performed on c-Si wafers and ultra-thin c-Si films with various thicknesses. A comparison with state-of-the-art front side texturing with an antireflection coating is made. The 2D periodic photonic nanostructures result in an enhanced light absorption in the photoactive material. The results are validated through simulations based on Rigorous Coupled Wave Analysis (RCWA). The nanoimprinted substrates result in a similar absorption compared to the state-of-the-art random pyramid texturing while consuming less than a micron of photoactive material. In contrast to the random pyramid texturing, the nanopatterning exhibits a robust performance for a wide range of incident angles up to 70°. The light trapping mechanism we propose is based on the combination of a graded index effect and the diffraction of light inside the photoactive layer at high angles.