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The Musée de l'Hospice Comtesse in Lille

A haven of peace and a testament to care.

By Mary Johns

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Inside the Musee de l'Hospice Comtesse in Lille

© Frederic Legoy

Introduction

The Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse (the Museum of the Hospice of the Countess) has over the centuries been a place which took both the body and the soul to its heart. Set in Lille on the banks of the former riverbed of the old port, the Hospice Comtesse was established as a religious community to care for the sick and the poor in the 13th century and continued its work until 1939.

The History

The Hospice Comtesse was founded in 1245 by Countess Jeanne of Flanders within the walls of her own palace. The brothers and sisters who formed the new community placed themselves under the protection of the Virgin Mary and set themselves a mission to look after the sick and to care for distressed souls. At the head of the community were the master and the prioress, who had a duty to protect the inmates and ensure that the monastic rules were observed.

What you see

Today the former hospice stands in a beautiful courtyard, testament to seven remarkable centuries, and one of the few reminders of the legacy of the mighty Counts of Flanders.

The series of rooms which you can wander through tell a story of caring for the needy in an atmosphere of austerity and peace. You start in the parlour with its 17th-century panelling, where the prioress held court. Here visitors can see the eight ex-votos offered to the Virgin Mary in gratitude for healing or the recovery of a child. Adjoining the parlour was a small sitting room, a cloakroom and an oratory.

The kitchen, so easy to visualise in its early state with pots steaming on the fire, is covered in glazed cobalt blue-and-white earthenware tiles inspired by 17th- and 18th-century Dutch models. They are arranged in themes illustrating shepherds and shepherdesses, sea monsters and games played in a bygone day.

The nuns, cooks and lay sisters prepared the meals and in this they were forward thinking. Food was considered to be of prime importance in the treatment of the sick.

The nuns took their meals in the refectory in silence. One of them would stand at the lectern and read out a passage from the Bible as the nuns ate. Furniture and other objects found there illustrate the seriousness of religion. Here you'll see a commissioned work called Faith by A. De Vuez, the hospice’s official painter, and a statue of St. Augustine which underlines the doctrines so important to the community. The furniture is decorated with carved garlands of fruit, cornucopia and human figures.

The patients at the Hospice were cared for in the hospital ward, a vast, single-nave rectangular room where each patient was allotted a bed and a wooden shelf set into the wall. The beds were fitted with curtains to keep out the cold and bedding consisted of a pillow, sheets and a blanket on which the coat of arms of Flanders was embroidered. The bleak but practical ward has a panelled vault and there are a number of devotional paintings on the walls.

During their stay the patients were served by what was basically a pharmaceutical laboratory. The nuns used plants grown in their own gardens or purchased in the city and prepared remedies which were stored in the apothecary jars on display. The salvation of the soul was of paramount importance but the needs of the body were also met, with great attention given to hygiene and diet. The portrait of Canon Balique on his deathbed was a reminder that the nuns attended not just to the needs of the sick, but also to the dying in the same way as a modern hospice cares.

All these rooms, plus the richly embellished Chapel and the linen room, can be seen on the tour of the Hospice, bringing to life a past age when the care of the soul was considered as important as the care of the body. The applied art collections help explain the environmental, political and social climate of Lille from the 16th century through to the Revolution.

After the French Revolution, the Hospice became a home for old men and orphans until 1939 when it became a general store until it was transformed into this remarkable and evocative museum.

Practical Information

Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse
32 rue de la Monnaie
Tel.: 00 (0)3 28 36 84 00
Website (in French)

Open Monday 2-6pm, Wednesday to Sunday 10am-12.30pm and 2-6pm.

Admission adult 3.50 euros, 12 to 25 years and students 2.5p euros; audio guide 2 euros
Free first Sunday of every month

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