Medieval medical care may have shortened life rather than extended it, but Beaune, France’s Hotel-Dieu offered a beautiful and comfortable place to die. Without the knowledge and resources to cure most diseases, the nuns were lavish with physical comforts. The extravagant religious art offered solace for souls ready to move into the next life.
Hotel-Dieu, built in 1443, was designed by the Flemish architect Jacques Wiscrère and consists of a pair of two-story buildings set around a stone courtyard. The façade is an acclaimed example of Northern Renaissance civic architecture. Documents prove that many Flemish and French masons, painters, and glass cutters were employed for its construction.
The inside has been restored to the original with famous panel paintings in their original places. The Hall of the Poor is furnished with beds made up with warm, comfortable bedding and draped with red curtains. The beautifully designed but functional patient care items such as jugs and wash basins and the wooden chair and table beside each bed show that the indigent were treated with dignity. High above the two precise line of beds is a small window where the nuns looked down on their patients from their living quarters.
Beds face a remarkable polyptych altarpiece by Roger van der Weyden of Tournal. The polyptych was normally closed in the shadows of the chancel. When a patient entered his final hour, consecrated candles lit up the chancel, the nuns would kneel for a final prayer, and a priest would open the panels. The last thing the dying person saw was the Archangel opening the gates of paradise.
The structure is so sound that the buildings were used as a hospital until the 1970s. Now open to the public as a museum, the Hotel Dieu offers insights into the Middle Ages. In a time riddled with war and disease, this place is a testament to man’s humanity to man through the ages.
I visited Hotel Dieu during a day trip on a Uniworld Cruise down the Rhone River. The manager of this boutique riverboat company explained that Uniworld seeks out less traveled places for some tours so that guests will not be part of a mob of tour groups. The town of Beaune was not crowded, and I enjoyed my tour of Hotel Dieu without being rushed and bruised with selfie sticks.
For more of my travel adventures and misadventures and interesting finds along the way, please subscribe to my column. More to come on the elegance, comforts, and surprises of a Uniworld river cruise.