As an art and history lover, the old Saint-Johns hospital dating back to the 12th century, one of the oldest hospital buildings in Europe, is one of my favorite museums in Bruges. Every tourist visiting Bruges gets at least a glimpse of the outside, but only few ever set a foot inside. It is a museum and it shows old paintings, so many visitors immediately label it as boring, dusty, a pile of old bricks, with paintings most don’t understand any more. It being a religious institution only makes matters worse, the catholic church ranks very low in popularity polls these days, especially in Western Europe. So if tourists have to choose between the Choco-Story, the Friet-museum, the interactive Historium or the old Saint-Johns hospital, the last one will often end up at the bottom of the list, or will not even make the list of ‘have to visit’ museums in Bruges.
Most tourists visiting Bruges are charmed by the old medieval cobble stone streets, the gothic palaces, the mysterious churches, the white washed stepped gable one room houses with cosy inner gardens, the beautiful beguinage, the horse carriages that enforce the medieval feel, the impressive Belfry, and of course the winding canals with old stone bridges that create a romantic view after every corner you take. It is this medieval feel of the city that is the real attraction of Bruges.
And it is this medieval feel that the Saint-Johns hospital has retained not only on the outside which is really stunning, but even more on the inside of the building. And yes the sickbeds from medieval times have disappeared as are the nuns in their black and white gowns, but the atmosphere is still there. So just sit down for a moment on one of the benches and soak in the dark, quiet surroundings, and try to imagine what it must been like 800 years ago. Maybe first take a look at the painting by Beerblock, The Wards at Saint Johns’ Hospital, who has painted the interior of the hospital in the 18th century. Look closely at the other paintings that illustrate the life in and around the hospital, they tell you a lot of how the life was back then.
Religion and art were closely intertwined in the Middle Ages. In Bruges, Hans Memling was one of the famous Flemish Primitives working for the rich and famous in medieval Bruges. No less than four pairings were commissioned for the Saint Johns’ hospital. His paintings show large influences by both Van der Weyden for whom he had worked in Brussels and by Jan Van Eyck. Memling was innovative in the way he painted lanscape backgrounds in his portraits.
Not only five paintings by Hans Memling are on show in the Saint-Johns’ hospital, two portraits and three triptychs, you can also admire the Saint Ursula shrine he painted ordered by the cloister community of the hospital. The shrine holds a relic of Saint Ursula and is in the shape of a gothic chapel sumptuously decorated by carvings in gothic style. The paintings on the shrine depict scenes from the life of Saint-Ursula, religious scenes and characters of the saint’s legend. It is a world class masterpiece.
Not to be missed it the 13th century attic of the hospital with its monumental oak wood rafter (wooden roof structure), one to the oldest in Europe and the partly conserved 14th century floor.
And if you crave for more, your ticket is also valid for a visit of the pharmacy of the hospital, founded in the 17th century in the former cloister of the monks. All the furniture and recipients from the 17th and 18th century can still be found here.
What I like most about this place is its lack of pretense, the straightforward lay out, the lack of bells or ribbons, nothing interactive, its relatively small surface, and the fact that they keep to their core business which is the medieval hospital life and the works of Hans Memling.
Here you can take refuge from the busy everyday world, get away from the streets crowded with tourists or find a cool spot during one of the heat waves in summer. It is a great place to unwind, to relax and enjoy some beauty and art.
Next time you visit Bruges, try something different and step inside the old Saint John’s hospital in Bruges to find out why I am so fond of this place!
Address: Mariastraat 38, Brugge 8000
Open: Tuesday – Sunday: 09:30 – 17:00
Tickets: 12 euro, -25 and +65 years old: 10 euro, -17 years old: free