Secrets of the church of Perillos
Part 1: How architecture can contribute to military purposes
A dead village
A visit of the old village of Périllos is done quite nostalgically amidst the ruined houses, often without roofs, with walls that are covered with shrubs and used by lizards that are on a reconnaissance mission… The visitors, tourists and other curious take it in, almost in silence… besides, could it be any different when confronted with the strange warning, written on a wall at the entry of the borough: "Be wary, the walls have eyes and ears…"?
A quaint church
houses, despite ruins, are quite recent. But some structures are far older,
particularly the church and the castle. The church may seem very small and
may not seem to comprise much or anything in particular. It
does not hold any important relics. People come and go and in the warm summer
months, it offers a welcome respite to the many visitors who appreciate
its fresh shade amidst the blazing sun. It does not seem to offer anything
else but that. Still, we will sojourn a bit longer on the various aspects
of this small building, specifically
- its architecture and construction
- its religious ornamentation
- certain details, such as its orientation, its function, etc.
- its positioning and certain intriguing elements that accompany it.
In fact, we will begin with the latter.
An old chapel
We stand in front and just below the entrance of the church. It is now known as the “Church of Perillos” and it was previously the chapel of the lords of Perillos. At the time, the village was probably smaller than the present remains and it is possible that the chapel was open to the villagers, who may have attended the masses and religious festivals together with the local lords and occupants of the castle.
we note that there is some distance between the old keep just behind us,
on slightly higher ground, and the chapel in front of us. Normally, the
chapel of the castle is integrated within the castle. Here, the chapel is
outside of its walls. It is situated in what would have been termed the
“low court” and is protected by a peripheral wall. Even today,
it is easy to see how there would have been two entrances into the castle;
one which the visitors take up to the church, the other that takes the visitors
from the church courtyard to the cemetery.
This outer perimeter does not look too resilient to fend off a military attack. The walls of the castle itself, that is however another matter. It suggests that the chapel was only of secondary importance to the lords of Perillos, which in itself would have been an astonishing fact and not in keeping with the “bon ton” of the time. As such, we will return to this defensive system and note that first impressions, for the passing visitor, are indeed deceiving.
Church and castle
The entrance of the church of St Michael is directly opposite the wall of the keep. This excludes the possibility of a door allowing direct – and easy – access between the church and the castle. To get from castle to church, it seems that you had to swerve around the edge of the hilltop (of the castle), and descend, before entering the chapel. It is neither practical nor rational and even today, many visitors never bother to look at the remains of the castle, if only because it is not obvious how to get there. On second thought, the entire set-up is so cumbersome that you would even imagine that the keep itself had a small oratory that would allow the local lord to say his devotions without having to leave the castle and circle parts of the village before finding his chapel.
… Inconsistency or will?
chapel is built on an elevated, natural rock surface, compared to the slope
that leads to the ruins of the castle. To reach the porch, you need to take
several steps up.
There is, in itself, nothing extraordinary in the fact that the chapel was installed on a native rock plate. This type of installation is well-known and frequently done, as it is important from a religious perspective. Furthermore, the site and the village were placed under the protection of St Michael, the archangel of high places, so… However, one could, at the moment of construction, have decided to allow for an easier access, if only by creating the access on the western side of the building, where the ground level is level with the church, and not on the northern side, where several steps are required to gain entrance to the church. Furthermore, by using the western side, the entrance to the church would be nearer to the castle and thus easier for the noble family. The question is therefore whether this inconsistency was done during the construction of the chapel, or whether there is a specific goal behind the inconsistency.
A locked entrance
Let us enter the church. Access is gained through two heavy doors. The doors are too heavy and disproportionate for such a small building. Few people have seen the church from the inside while the doors have been closed. But several observations can be made when this is done: first, we note the door itself. On both sides, there are openings, going into the wall of the porch. These are two square openings, cut into the stones, each on the same height. It is not immediately obvious what purpose the two openings serve… and no clues remain… at least not in Perillos itself. Other churches, such as that of Notre-Dame-de-Marceille, Prats-de-Mollo, etc., do still reveal the purpose of the two holes: a thick wooden beam was positioned in one hole, which could be dragged across the porch, and secured into the hole on the other side. As the door opens to the inside, it would mean that with the beam in place, the door would not open. But let us note that this system will only work from the inside: someone needs to be inside the church to drag the beam across the door… and that person will thus remain inside the church, until he himself removes the beam and can thus leave the building. It is, in short, self-confinement for at least one person – or a small community that need the structure to save their own lives.
Darkness and light
from this “door lock”, there is another surprise in stall. It
is obvious to anyone who is inside, and with the door closed: there is hardly
any light at all. The only source of light is a small window in the very
back of the church, on the western side. Let us nevertheless note that this
small window was only added in the middle of the 19th century.
Without the small window, the interior of the chapel, when the door was closed, would always have been in total darkness. Any mass said inside the church would always have needed either the doors open or plenty of candles to illuminate the ceremony. This in itself is remarkable, for churches that do not allow any daylight to enter are extremely rare. This, for sure, cannot be an inconsistency of the builder. Even the builder himself must have realised that working conditions were not too favourable, as he constantly needed illumination to carry out any work inside the building.
As it cannot possibly have been an error or an oversight, it is clear that this total darkness was intentional and wanted by the lords of Perillos. There is no other possible reason. But why would he need darkness inside his chapel? Was there something that required such darkness? Surely it cannot have been a religious ceremony… at least not Christian in nature. But perhaps the true reason was not religious, but military. Did darkness help him in some way or form? If so, what?
The scattered parts of a formidable puzzle
look at the following pieces of the puzzle and see whether we can slot them
- A debatable site of where the chapel was located in comparison to the keep.
- A contestable choice for the position of the entrance
- A very solid mechanism to close the doors… from the inside
- Almost complete darkness inside the chapel once the doors are closed.
Things that cannot be moved
relationship between the castle and its chapel is not the best. We see a
chapel that is reserved or at least primarily for the use of the local lords,
yet it is not within the confines of the castle, but outside, in the “lower
court”. Furthermore, access to it is cumbersome at best and not straightforward.
It is therefore clear that the decision to nevertheless do it in the manner
in which it was done, was for a specific purpose.
At first sight, the site where the chapel has been situated does not seem to have any redeeming features. It is therefore not quite clear why the church stands where it stands. So let us try to answer the question in the most plausible manner possible: that the building is located where it is because he could not build it anywhere else. This would mean that there was a natural defining characteristic about the site.
We know that the landscape of Perillos is riddled with small caves… as well as extensive networks of underground tunnels, some hundreds of metres long… some apparently even several kilometres long. The underground network is present everywhere… and it is clear that even though it is not too visible in Perillos itself, there must be tunnels and caves under the village itself too. We now know that there are such tunnels, for modern equipment has revealed that such fault lines run under the village. And such an underground cavity – or tunnel – would surely have been beneficial and of use for the local lord? Furthermore, it is highly unlikely he would not have served himself of their presence, perhaps as a means of escape in dire times, or perhaps as a storage facility, of food, water, or precious relics: a vault. We know that one such fault line runs along the main axis of the church. The presence of this fault line itself may have been the reason why the site was deemed to be of religious significance in the first place. But the construction of a chapel on top – a chapel belonging to the lord of the village – would have had even more important – though less religious – advantages. Chapels are rarely destroyed – except in times of religious war or outrage and even then, the damage is often limited to statues or other paintings. The shell remains intact.
Behaviour inside a religious building is also closely socially regulated. Though a castle can be searched and destroyed completely, few would dare to touch the church – definitely if the church sits just outside the castle, making it appear as if there is no direct relationship between both; if the chapel were inside the castle, then its destruction could be seen as required or a sad side-effect of the castle’s demolition. But if the church sits outside the keep… its destruction would be interpreted as an act of savagery.
A second – polar – anomaly
There is yet another anomaly that we will try to include and interpret in a rational way. We need to take into account that on occasion, the principal entrance of a church is indeed on the side wall. This is the case in the church of Rennes-le-Château, Serres, Coustaussa, Cassaignes, and others. It is therefore difficult to look at the porch in the northern side of the church of Perillos and see nothing but an anomaly. Let us nevertheless note that it is customary that the bell-tower and its immediate surroundings were normally set apart for being decorated the most, as well as being the primary site of entrance. Furthermore, that an opening or the presence of a door – sometimes fake – on the northern side was, in old days, known as a “Door of the Dead”, or the “Door of Souls”. Still, the lords of Perillos chose this porch as the only entrance. And even though there was a level access on the western (bell-tower side), steps were installed on the northern side, so that a tiresome access was created to the chapel – over an easier, more normal and more impressive entrance. Why?
porch is not big, opens in the middle, is heavy, and can be sealed off from
the inside with a beam. Anyone trying to enter will have a difficult time.
If an invading army does try to enter the church, with some or more inside,
they will need to force open the heavy, barricaded door. But while trying
to do this, they will have to apply force to the door, which they need to
try and crack by running up a steep incline. It is not only difficult to
do, it will also take a long time to accomplish – if doable at all.
Thus, we find that the chapel is not only a religious sanctuary, but also a stronghold, a place of refuge, where the lords or other people can enter, lock the door, and remain inside while an entire army can try to lay siege to the porch – something that will take great time and effort.
When a small chapel becomes a fortress
Though the chapel can thus save the lords and citizens of Perillos from a military attack, it is equally clear that the territory of Perillos will not immediately be attacked – it is not of any importance… even though it sits along the border between France and Aragon. At best, the lords of Perillos have to deal with border disputes and small military or para-military incursions. In truth, the village is not able to withstand anything more than such an attack. If the lord sees anything more substantial than a small army, he knows his time is up. If anything, it is not the castle, but the church that is better equipped to resist the onslaught.
A realistic scenario
Let us quickly do some screen writing: the lord realises he needs to evacuate his family, his chaplain and perhaps one or two men-at-arms which he can trust. All of them will move into the castle’s chapel, where they close the door behind them, strengthening it with the wooden beam. But the system is now suddenly even more ingenious than we previously thought: anyone trying to break through the barricaded doors, not only needs to try and break them while running up the slope, but the troops also have a minimal distance to gain momentum, as the wall of the keep is just a few yards away. Until the arrival of gunpowder and its use in the “art” of war, a closed door will remain closed unless a ram batters through it.
Fire, or the axe
remains one element that we still need to consider. The lords of Perillos
seem to have taken it into account. Some troops obviously must have realised
that a ram would not serve any useful purpose. Thus, they could have tried
to set fire to the door, in an effort to find out whether they could “smoke”
the people inside out. Or they could have used an axe to hack through the
The lords of Perillos must have considered this possibility and taken it into account. Would they not have had a safety net so that they could evade this trap? Perhaps not, as there remain some more details that need to be studied.
In darkness, we conquer
Though the lord of Perillos may have taken refuge inside the chapel, it is equally the case that there is no natural source of light. Furthermore, this darkness seems to have been an explicit desire of those in charge of its construction. Thus, we realise that all of a sudden, the chapel becomes more like an impregnable bunker. Any source of natural lightning is forsaken for the fact that without any windows, no-one is able to break the glass and see and/or climb inside. Indeed, with the door closed, the room is in total darkness, but the inhabitants of the chapel are also absolutely safe for at least a few hours.
The final stand
us return to our screenplay. Outside, rams are battering the door. Or perhaps
someone is trying to hack a way through the door. But what is happening
inside? Are people lightning candles, praying to God that he may intervene
and save them? If they are, they know it will take a miracle… and
God seldom seems to grant these favours during military sieges.
Perhaps the lord of Perillos is addressing his men-at-arms, urging them that once the door is breached, they will fight until death…for the sake of their ancestors and their descendants, and their honour… to make sure they fought for the lives of their family, no doubt hidden inside the chapel with them. But, perhaps, there is an alternative ?