The Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse by guest writer Mary Johns.

The Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse 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. It continued its work until 1939.

Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse Lille showing red brick historic building on two floors withbelltower and sandstone building to right in paved courtyard
Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse Public domain CC-BY-SA 4.0

Buildings of the Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse

The Hospice Comtesse was founded in 1237 by the powerful Countess Jeanne of Flanders and is one of the few reminders of the legacy of the Counts of Flanders. Built within the walls of the Comtesse’s palace, it stands in a beautiful courtyard, testament to seven remarkable centuries. The series of rooms which you can wander through tell a story of caring for the needy in an atmosphere of austerity and peace.

Countesse Jeanne of Flanders

1849 print of Joan of Flanders on horseback. Horse protected for war, Joan looking back with clothes slying, carrying falcon on her hand
Joan of Flanders 1849 print Public domain

The Countess Jeanne was an extraordinary woman, the powerful ruler of the prosperous kingdom of Flanders and a deeply humane character. In many ways typical of her time, she helped develop the Mendicant orders, the Beguines, the Victorines and hospital communities. Many of these were run by women, enhancing their role and status in society and the church.

Oil painting of Saint Augistine by Gerard Seghers showing bearded man in gold robes and mitre sitting t table writing
Saint Augustine by Gerard Seghers Public domain

The order at the Hospice Comtesse was a branch of the Augustinians who followed the Rule of Saint Augustine. It was written around 400 AD by Augustine of Hippo, theologian, philosopher, and a bishop in Roman north Africa. His Rule became one of the most important elements in the development of Western Christianity.

The brothers and sisters who formed the new community placed themselves under the protection of the Virgin Mary. Their mission? To look after the sick and to care for distressed souls. 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 Hospice Community

Over the years the Hospice was regularly extended. 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. 

Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse Lille showing wall of portraits of young girls above half panelled walls, with wood floor and edge of wooden table
Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse Parlour Public domain CC-BY-SA 3.0

The prioress held court in the parlour with its 17th-century panelling. Visitors can see the eight ex-votos (offerings in thanks and fulfilling the vow made). Such objects are found throughout Christendom, offerings 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 Hospice Kitchen

Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse Kitchen with marble flagged floor, walls covered entirely in blue Delft tiles, old oak wooden sideboard, table and chairs in the middle
Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse Kitchen © Lille Tourist Office

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’re arranged in themes illustrating shepherds and shepherdesses, sea monsters and games played in the past.

The nuns, cooks and lay sisters prepared the meals, considered to be of prime importance in the treatment of the sick. It was a remarkable instance of forward thinking.

The Hospice Refectory

Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse Lille Refectory with big windows in sandy coloured walls, two long wooden tables, brick fireplace with Old Master picture above; portraits on walls
Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse Lille Refectory Public Domain CC-BY-SA 3.0

The nuns took their meals in the refectory in silence. One of the sisters stood at the lectern and read out a passage from the Bible as the nuns ate. From the furniture and other objects found there you realise that religion was a serious business.

There is 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 Hospital Ward

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. 

Making Medicines

Red coloured building behind filling the background and rows of beds of medicinal herbs at the Musee l'Hospice
Garden of l’Hospice Comtesse © Lille Tourist Office

During their stay the patients were served by the apothecary, 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 medicinal garden at the Hospice is small, but during the centuries it has grown the plants that soothed and healed.

You’ll come across apothecaries throughout France but the best preserved is at the delightful small town of Baugé in Anjou.

Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse Lille chapel. Ornate wooden ceiling; white walls, altar at back
Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse Chapel Public domain CC-BY-SA 4.0

All these rooms, plus the richly embellished Chapel and the linen room, can be seen on the tour of the Hospice. They bring to life a past age when the care of the soul was seen to be 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. 

There are excellent temporary exhibitions each year that focusing on history and contemporary art.

After the French Revolution the Hospice became a home for old men and orphans until 1939 when it became a general store. Thankfully it was transformed into this remarkable and evocative museum where you feel as if you are stepping back into Flemish history.

Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse
32 rue de la Monnaie
59000 Lille
Tel: +33 (0)3 28 36 84 00
Open Mon 2pm-6pm; Wed to Sun 10am-6pm
Closed Tues
Admission Adult €3.70; 12 to 25 year olds €2.60; Audioguide €2
Free under 12 years and 1st Sun of each month

How to get to the Hospice

By car: Take the Ferry to France from the UK.
The drive from Calais to Lille is 110 kms/68 miles and takes around 1hr 15 mins.

By train: 15 minutes by foot from the SNCF Lille-Flandres and Lille-Europe stations
Métro: Gare Lille-Flandres (lines 1 et 2) or station Rihour (line 1)
Bus: No 9 stopping at Palais de justice
Free shuttle bus: Vieux-Lille (stops on demand)