Saint John’s Hospital and Hans Memling, Bruges
St. John’s Hospital in Bruges is an excellent example of when preservation and art exhibition are done correctly. A former pilgrim’s hospital, the grand hall and church have been transformed into a museum. The space exhibits art and medical objects from the history of the clinic, plus a very special section dedicated to Bruges’ most famous resident and Flemish Primitive painter Hans Memling.
Saint John’s Hospital (Sint-Janshospitaal) was founded in the 11th century to care for needy pilgrims passing through Bruges. The complex expanded over the centuries adding a monastery, convent and pharmacy. As you can see from the historic image below, the main hall was incredibly busy with little sick bays along the architectural elements. The hospital hall has been converted into the museum and there is an eerie similarity between image of the active hospital and the structure today.
One aisle of the hall chronicles those who worked in the hospital and displays a nun’s habits, terrifying medical devices, “plague cures” and portraits of very earnest 18th century physicians. Another section displays art commissioned by the religious communities of Bruges which was consolidated here following Napoleon’s reign. Subject matter, style and period vary wildly among these paintings.
The “Memling Museum” is really just the hospital church and narthex which is open to the rest of the hospital hall. It’s a silly distinction but a lovely collection! German-born Hans Memling came to Brussels to work with Rogier van der Weyden and then moved on to Bruges in 1465. He was very popular gaining commissions from religious communities, social groups, individuals and foreigners. At one point Memling appeared on city tax records as one of the wealthiest men in Bruges.
In 1479 Hans Memling completed the St. John’s Altarpiece which had been commissioned to hang in the Hospital Church. Despite the female saints beside the Virgin in the central panel, the piece is actually dedicate to the two patron saints of the Hospital. The left panel shows the beheading of St. John the Baptist. On the right there is a rare image of St. John the Evangelist observing a vision of the Apocalypse at Patmos. The open altarpiece is brilliantly colored and incredibly dramatic in the black and white Baroque Church interior.
The altarpiece is exhibited in the round so that you can enjoy the outer door decorations. Like all triptych, the piece would have been usually displayed in the closed configuration. The outer two panels show the Abbesses and Chaplains of the Hospital who commissioned the altarpiece along with their patron Saints.
The luminosity of color, intricate detail and hidden brushwork is characteristic of Memling and the Flemish Primitive style. It is rewarding to examine the St. John’s altarpiece up close and then step back (or take a seat) and soak it all in. The Memling Museum has done an excellent job exhibiting this masterpiece.
For directions and opening hours, check the museum’s website, then look for this petite but elegant doorway. The hospital is literally across the street from the Church of Our Lady (which houses a statue by Michelangelo) so it is very easy to miss this museum if you’re not looking for it.