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
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
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
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
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
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.
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'
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
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
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
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,
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.