Museum Sint-Janshospitaal: An outstanding new museum that will make your heart beat faster
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Museum Sint-Janshospitaal: An outstanding new museum that will make your heart beat faster
Installation view.

BRUGES.- An outstanding new museum in the heart of Bruges opens its doors today. St John’s Hospital, one of the oldest and best-preserved hospital buildings in Europe, will immerse its visitors in a brand-new and contemporary museum experience. A museum brimming with heart-warming stories of hospitality and care down the centuries.

Since the 12th century, anyone in need of care or a warm bed has been welcome at St John’s Hospital: the sick, the poor, pilgrims, travellers, etc. Empathy and hospitality have been intertwined with the DNA of the hospital and the hospital site for nearly 900 years. That warm history lives on today in a contemporary museum setting, through some fascinating works of art – old and contemporary – and gripping testimonies. A total experience that goes straight to the heart.

Old and contemporary art

Visitors will come face to face at the new museum with unique collection objects and works of art that have been linked to the hospital and its history for centuries. Utensils such as a litter and medical instruments, religious objects that provided comfort to the sick and the sisters at the hospital, and above all many works of art, such as the world-famous works of Hans Memling. The Flemish master made four works commissioned by the Brothers and Sisters at St John’s, among others. Musea Brugge’s Memling collection – the second largest in the world – will therefore have a starring role at the revamped museum.

The mediaeval art and hospital collection is complemented by some surprising contemporary works by big names, such as Berlinde De Bruyckere and the Australian Patricia Piccinini, who created new works especially for the museum. Contemporary works enhance the museum story and open it up to today. They invite visitors to look at the old works of art with new eyes.

Universal stories: Feel the Heartbeat

Museum Sint-Janshospitaal invites visitors not just to look, but to connect with the works of art. The new museum layout interweaves the (art) historical story with several recognisable and universal themes: hospitality, empathy, life and death, body and soul, suffering, meaning and care. Themes that were part of the lived experience of mediaeval hospital visitors, but that still occupy our minds today. As a result, the museum tells stories that are relevant to any visitor.

The art objects, as well as interactive touch tables, videos and testimonies, bring those themes to life and prompt visitors to pause and reflect upon current, yet age-old topics. For example, the museum allows people who have recently had to say goodbye to a loved one to speak and connects their stories with collection pieces that provided comfort to faithful mediaevalists. By going in search of new, contemporary layers of meaning in the old collection, the art objects regain the emotional power they once had for the people at the hospital. That makes the Museum Sint-Janshospitaal a place you visit with your heart. A warm place that invites you to connect your heartbeat to the museum – figuratively and literally – and become one with the beating heart of the city.

A place that breathes history

One look at the history of the hospital and the hospital site surrounding the museum is enough to realise that this place is also a museum piece in itself. The building and the hospital site will therefore receive the attention they deserve in the new setup. At the museum, visitors will delve into the history of the old wards, church and impressive attic. The attic of St John’s Hospital has an oak roof truss that is among the oldest and most monumental in Europe. Around the museum, through information boards and QR codes with in-depth information, visitors will discover the story of how the old hospital site was essential to the operation of the hospital and evolved along with its needs down the centuries. From the vanished hospital cemetery, orchard and kitchen gardens to the hospital pharmacy, where visitors can still walk into the authentic 17th-century interior.

The new Memling shrine: a museum within the museum

Today, the Museum Sint-Janshospitaal houses seven works by one of the most famous Flemish primitives: Hans Memling.

The 15th-century master of visual realism was born in Germany, but soon headed for the Low Countries, where he ended up in Brussels at the workshop of the great master Rogier van der Weyden. In 1465, Memling arrived in Bruges, where he would live for the rest of his life and where he would create his most important masterpieces.

He created four works especially for St John’s Hospital: a monumental altarpiece, two triptychs and the famous St Ursula Shrine. The other three works will be added to the St John’s Hospital collection later on. Two further works are at the Groeninge Museum. With nine Memlings, Musea Brugge’s collection is the second-largest in the world. Only The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York does better, with 11 items.

At the new Museum Sint-Janshospitaal, Hans Memling’s masterpieces will have a new place in the spotlight, where they can shine in full glory. The St Ursula Shrine stands in the former hospital church, where it enters into dialogue with Berlinde De Bruyckere’s ‘Liggende- Arcangelo II, 2023’. Hans Memling’s six paintings have been brought together in an impressive glass structure inspired in form by the St Ursula Shrine. Like a museum within a museum, the glass shrine – just like its example – preserves some precious contents. A shrine containing Memling’s masterpieces, such as a large treasury of crown jewels.

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