The Hospices de Beaune

The Vineyard
Vin et tradition, Hospices de Beaune
Town's Heritage
Hotel Dieu in Beaune : the jewels of Burgundy

One of the main consequences of the revolution has been the end of the Rolin dynasty.
The management of the Hospices de Beaune is now ensured by a board of directors whose president, as for all hospitals, is the mayor of the town.
Concerning their administration, the Hospices are managed by a director and his assistants who ensure the proper functioning of the town's hospital, and also of the old people's homes and of the private estate, that is the historical monument and the wine-growing and wine-making estate.

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Beaune, 20th Century... almost 21st Century!

At the dawn of the third millennium, the Hospices de Beaune represent a unique group : the Hôtel-Dieu, the master element of the town's heritage, is no longer receiving sick persons but it remains one of the jewels of Burgundy.

This image is enhanced by the wine-growing estate of the Hospices (62 hectares). The sales of the estate's production provides the necessary income for the institution's maintenance. It thus keeps up an age-old tradition of care and comforting which today is reflected by an outstanding hospital complex, in the heart of Burgundy.

A cultural heritage

Although development has gradually led to changes in the site, the Hôtel-Dieu remains the soul of the town of Beaune. The building has not really changed, except for some structures which were imposed by use and age, and the treasures which accumulated throughout the centuries are piously preserved there.

Although it no longer plays the ancestral role of receiving the sick, the Hôtel-Dieu remains a main tourist attraction, receiving over 400,000 visitors per year.

Hôtel-Dieu : "the glory of the poor"

In his organization as in his building, Nicolas Rolin left nothing to chance: the Hôtel-Dieu had to be an exceptional building. The trained observer will notice a certain resemblance with the magnificent Hôpitaux du Nord, that is the Hôtel Dieu of Valenciennes, the Hôpital Notre-Dame des Fontenilles and the Biloke of Gand. These were the models for the "Palace of the Poor" as the founder imagined it, although he wanted to outmatch them. More beautiful, bigger, the Hôtel-Dieu of Beaune was finished in nine years, employing the Flanders' most prestigious artists who worked with those from the heart of Burgundy. Far from being passive, the population participated in the construction of this masterpiece of gothic architecture.

The buildings form a large rectangle centered around the main courtyard. One can recognize a well there, older than the construction itself and whose wrought iron work is a masterpiece in itself. The building itself is made up of a unique contrast: austere when seen from the outside, in order to avoid being coveted, the interior is indeed bathed with light, the roofs are covered with glazed tiles of sparkling colors. Brown, yellow, red, and green: the many colors play with the geometrical patterns of the building's roof.

As proud as ever, the iron salamander adorning the knocker on the oak door is still chasing the same fly since five centuries. Faithful companion of passing time, the bell rings every hour, regardless of the fact that now only one mass takes place each week in the chapel. Guided by the ringing of the bell, the visitor can stroll through the rooms of the Hôtel-Dieu.

The Big "Room of the Poor" has impressive dimensions (46.30 m long and 16 m high), it is supported by a vault made like a ship's hull. This is where the sickbeds were, all covered in red, turned toward the chapel so the patients could follow the religious service in the best possible conditions. Just outside this room one's eye is automatically attracted by the remarkable Christ in bonds dating from the 15th Century, sculpted in one single oak trunk. The big room closed its doors in 1952, but the Hôtel-Dieu remained a refuge for the indigent until 1971.

Saint-Anne's room is closed to the public; formerly, it used to receive the most well-off sick persons. It is decorated with a brightly colored tapestry, decorated with the coat of arms and the motto of the founders.

Saint-Hugues' room was designed by a patron from Beaune named Hugues Bétault; this is where the infirmary was located. The different structures bear witness to how the patients' comfort evolved: shelves for their personal belongings, support ropes, etc.

Saint-Nicolas' room was used to prepare the dying for their journey. In 1658, Louis XIV, as he was visiting the Hospices, found the crowding of men and women in the same room improper. Thus, the king immediately accorded a grant in order to have another room installed, and from then on, the big room was reserved for men only. Saint-Nicolas' room now accommodates a public exhibition about the history of the building.

The kitchen
also presents some striking features in this building: the mischievous Messire Bertrand can be seen tirelessly turning the spit over the fire since 1698. How to explain such a long life? Our dear Bertrand is an automaton made by the watchmaker De Fresne, an ingenious child of this town of Burgundy. The visitor can also admire the copper utensils which the patients of the Hôtel-Dieu used.

The apothecary or pharmacy, is a cunning blend of copper, crockery, and pewter. Its collection of earthenware pots from Franche-Comté includes some unique objects whose contents are sometimes ... surprising. Woodlouse powder, fish glue, burnt sponges and other magic powders may perhaps be laughable, but they undoubtedly relieved illnesses for generations. At the center of the room a bronze mortar dating from 1760 reminds the visitor that the nuns used to prepare the pharmacopoeia themselves. This was a task for the mind but also for the body : the pestle, moved by a pulley system, weighs a good 6 kilogrammes.

Finally, the big Saint-Louis' room was built at the end of the 17th Century in the location of a barn; it was also used to received sick persons. Today, it accommodates a part of the collection of furniture, tapestry, and art objects from the Hospices de Beaune. In its middle a marble fountain is the last witness to its original vocation: to offer help and protection to the poorest.

This superb building, the Hôtel-Dieu, is perhaps as well a case as a jewel : over 5,000 collection objects are artfully conserved ... There are as many furniture objects (beds, trunks, wardrobes ...), as other objects (tapestry, paintings, sculptures, etc.). This is not surprising, given the diversity of origins of these objects: some come from the foundation itself, others from the hospital's activities (purchase of material), still others were left as a legacy by patrons or patients. The artistic richness of the Hospices would not be complete without the tapestry and the paintings, all of which are of rare beauty. The most famous of them all is undoubtedly the "last judgment", a famous polyptych by Roger Van Der Weyden. Nicolas Rolin considered him to be the greatest Flemish painter after the death of Jan Van Eyck.

A close-up of the polyptych: This brilliant work of art is filled with symbols which perfectly reflect the ideas of salvation, of heavenly judgment as they were perceived during the 15th Century.

Placed above the altar in the big room of the poor, the nine volets of the painting flooded the faces of the sick with light, every Sunday and on holidays. One can see, in a sky sparkling with gold, the risen Christ surrounded by the saints and the apostles. Beneath their feet, in the dry cracks of the brown ground, the risen men speak to their "judges".

At the center of the retable sits the Christ, imperturbable, upon the rainbow of the Alliance. Wearing a wide scarlet coat, he forms an invisible triangle with the two inescapable intercessors: on his right his mother, Mary, whose face reflects serenity, and at the other extreme, imploring and even anguished, his precursor John the Baptist.
The Christ is seconded by the archangel, with whom he forms a vertical axis connecting the earth and the heavens. The archangel Saint-Michel is also one of the tips of another triangle, the triangle of the angels, four of which, on either side of the Christ, carry the instruments of the Passion.
On the ground, men and women are distributed on either side of the Christ: on his right, the pure are about to enter paradise where a kind angel awaits them. On the opposite side, the sinners, all those who refuse to follow the word of Christ, are sinking into darkness of Hell, thus confirming the phrase "Go away, cursed ones".
On weekdays, the retable used to be closed. In unique contrast with the brightness of the inside volets, the ones visible outside represented, besides the virgin Mary and the holy patrons, the two donors, smugly exhibited to the eyes of the poor.
The tumultuous history of the retable says that it disappeared during the revolution, then returned to Beaune, and was finally sawed in order to allow the spectators to behold both sides of the masterpiece at the same time.
The retable is no longer exhibited in the room of the poor, but in a special room just next door to Saint-Louis' room.

A true "compilation" of works of art, the Hôtel-Dieu is undoubtedly an essential element of French heritage, and the symbol of a region attached to its roots and its values.

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