A visit to the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune must surely be at the forefront of any stay in Burgundy. With its Gothic facade, geometrical shapes and flamboyant multi-coloured roof, this monument is a rare example of 15th-century architecture.
Shortly after the end of the Hundred Years’ War, Nicolas Rolin, chancellor of the Duke of Burgundy, and his wife, Guigone de Salins, founded the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune in 1443 as a hospital for the poor, destitute and sick.
Plague and armed bands ravaged the countryside, causing the peasantry to seek the safety of walled towns. Famine had left three-quarters of the population poverty-stricken. Philip the Good was the Duke of Burgundy, known for selling Joan of Arc to the English for 100 crowns to end the war.
Money for the construction came from Rolin’s wealth as Chancellor and from his wife, a wealthy Piedmontese noblewoman. Rolin declared his love for her by having the floor tiles of the Hôtel-Dieu inscribed with his motto Seulle meaning “the one and only.”
Hôtel-Dieu quickly gained a reputation among nobles and burghers. Through their donations, they helped enlarge and beautify the hospital by creating new facilities and the supply of works of art.
In 1457, Guillemette Levernier provided the first gift of vineyards to the Hospital, and this tradition continued for five centuries. Today, the winery is around 60 hectares, 85% of which are premier and grand crus, and auctioned on the third Sunday of November each year.
The auction, organised today by Christie’s House, is the most famous wine charity auction globally. All proceeds go to the modern hospital and to maintain the historic buildings, museum, and vineyards.
The hospital charter is noteworthy. Rolin, in his wisdom, achieved tax relief and made the running of the hospital independent of church and state, a charter that still applies today.
Rolin also had an unusually compassionate and enlightened approach to the care of the sick. He founded the sisterhood of nuns, Les Sœurs Hospitalières de Beaune, to care for the patients. Having disapproved of the severity of the first sisters, Rolin subsequently changed the rules of the sisterhood, opening up the role to anyone of good reputation between the ages of 18-30, allowing them to leave to either marry or join a religious order at a later date.
On Rolin’s death, his wife strove hard to protect the charter and prevent the Church from seizing the organisation’s wealth. Soon after, she joined the order to serve the sick until her death. During the French Revolution, there were some difficulties, but the unusual charter allowed the hospital to regain its wealth and original purpose when Napoleon reinstated nuns; the sisterhood was still caring for the sick until the twentieth century.
Jacques Wiscrère, a Flemish architect, is accredited with the design of the Hôtel-Dieu. The structure consists of two-story buildings around a central courtyard (Cour d’Honneur). Hospital wards, pharmacy, laboratory, kitchen, and chapel were all located in these buildings, as well as living quarters for the nuns.
The degree of detail in the interior and exterior design is remarkable, particularly the multi-coloured varnished roof tiles. These tiles soon became the symbols of Burgundy, with the current tiles recreated between 1902 and 1907.
Preserved in an exceptional state, the halls of Hôtel-Dieu contain a vast collection of objects, furniture, and tapestries from the 15th century, the most significant of which is the Last Judgement polyptych by the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden, created between 1446 and 1452. The elaborate decoration and artwork stemmed from the belief that beauty could heal the souls of the poor.
By today’s standards, the medical treatment was very crude. Under the vaulted, oak-panelled roof that looks like the hull of an upside-down boat, the gender-free Grand Hall of the Poor housed 30 beds, each one accommodating two patients. Initially, ablutions and toileting took place alongside the bed, with body wastes washed down the Bouzaise River that ran underneath the building. The grated channel still runs under the Grand Hall of the Poor today.
The Hôtel-Dieu has also provided the ideal backdrop for film and TV, the most famous of which was the 1966 Gérard Oury film La Grande Vadrouille (literally “The Great Stroll”).
La Grande Vadrouille was the highest-grossing French movie of the 20th century. The cult scenes with Bourvil, Louis de Funès, and Terry Thomas revolve around the courtyard and the Grand Hall of the Poor. Every other scene was filmed in various parts of the Bourgogne region.
This film continues to guarantee, 50 years later, the popularity of the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune. Indeed, nearby Meursault celebrated 50 years of filming La Grande Vadrouille in 2016.
The opportunity to experience the interior of the Hôtel-Dieu is a recent privilege. The sick and the elderly occupied it until the early 1980s. Since 1988, however, approximately 400,000 annual visitors can wander freely through the rooms.
Historically, Hôtel-Dieu has never stopped developing and has spawned several other medical facilities in nearby Pommard, Nolay and Meursault, which explains how the hospital establishment took on the name Hospices de Beaune.
Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune
Rue de l’Hôtel-Dieu 21200 Beaune
03 80 24 45 00
Everyday 9.00am – 6.30pm
Car: A6 from Paris. Train: TGV Paris to Dijon, TER to Beaune