In the heart of Burgundy, a French region world-renowned for its winemaking excellence, stands a monument that epitomizes the perfect blend of history, philanthropy and the art of wine: the Hospices de Beaune. Founded in the 15th century by Nicolas Rolin and his wife Guigone de Salins, this sumptuous edifice was not only destined to become an architectural masterpiece, but also a symbol of mutual aid and solidarity. For centuries, these walls have housed a hospital for the indigent, a sanctuary for the sick and, at the same time, witnessed the birth of one of the world’s most iconic wine sales. Let’s plunge together into the heart of this Burgundian jewel that resonates far beyond France’s borders.
Origin and foundation
The history of the Hospices de Beaune began in 1443, when Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to Philippe le Bon, Duke of Burgundy, and his wife Guigone de Salins decided to create a hospital for the poorest of the poor. During this period, France was hit by the Hundred Years’ War and the region was devastated by years of war, famine and plague. Faced with this great social distress, the couple decided to build a hospital for the most destitute. The construction of the Hospices de Beaune was seen as an act of charity and piety. Designed by architect Jacques Wiscrère, it is a Hôtel-Dieu (a church-administered hospital for orphans and pilgrims), distinguished by its multicolored glazed tile roofs, a symbol of Burgundy. For centuries, it functioned as a hospital, providing care for the sick, orphans and the needy. In addition to its medical mission, the Hospices de Beaune also owns a vineyard, with profits from wine sales helping to finance the institution. An annual wine auction attracts buyers from all over the world. It has become an emblematic Burgundian tradition. And so, over the years, the Hospices de Beaune have merged medical care and winegrowing heritage, reflecting the very heart of the Burgundy region.
The architecture of the Hospices de Beaune
The Hôtel-Dieu des Hospices de Beaune is one of Burgundy’s proudest architectural landmarks. The first thing that strikes you as you approach the building is its roof. Burgundy glazed tiles, arranged in intricate geometric patterns, create a dazzling display of color: green, yellow, red and black. These polychrome roofs, typical of the Burgundy region, give the building a singularity and an undeniable visual richness. The main building is framed by Gothic gables, with tall windows that let in light, illuminating the interior. The façades are adorned with detailed sculptures, including the Last Judgement, reminding everyone of the sacred and charitable nature of the institution. The interior architecture of the Hospices is just as impressive as the exterior. The Grande Cour, with its Gothic arcades and corner turrets, is a soothing space, designed to offer respite to those who entered. The centerpiece of the Hôtel-Dieu is undoubtedly the “Salle des Pôvres”. It’s a long, vaulted room where the sick were once treated. The ceiling is made of magnificent oak frameworks, giving the impression of an upside-down ship’s hull. On either side of the room, beds separated by thin partitions offer a glimpse of the care conditions of yesteryear. Pious frescoes above the beds recall the hospital’s spiritual mission. A soberly Gothic chapel contrasts with the ornamental richness of some of the Hospices’ other spaces, notably the famous courtyard with its colorful polygons.
Rooms to visit
La grande salle des Pôvres
Without doubt the building’s most emblematic room. Majestic and almost 50 metres long, it once housed beds for the sick. These beds, separated by thin wooden partitions, were arranged so that each patient could see the high altar. The magnificent vaulted roofs, supported by oak frameworks, give this hall a sense of grandeur. On the walls, antique tapestries and paintings depict the lives and miracles of Saint-Antoine and Saint-Hélène, adding a sacred and soothing dimension to the setting. These performances were also intended to reassure patients.
The hall is named after Saint-Hugues, bishop of Grenoble, renowned for his piety and commitment to the poor. This room, smaller than the previous one, was designed to accommodate more affluent patients. The beds were more widely spaced and offered a certain degree of privacy. The decor is more sober, but the attention to detail is just as present. From the carved woodwork to the colorful stained glass windows, everything was designed to provide a pleasant, peaceful healing environment. Its layout allowed for more individual follow-up and therefore more in-depth medical care. It also served as a place of meditation and prayer for staff and patients.
This smaller but equally significant room, named after its founder, chancellor Nicolas Rolin, highlights a more intimate and profound aspect of life at the Hôtel-Dieu. The atmosphere in this room is unique. It is less focused on the medical aspect and more on contemplation and meditation. On the walls, paintings and tapestries pay tribute to the life of St. Nicholas, the protector of children and travelers, a choice that no doubt reflects the compassion and protection offered by the Hôtel-Dieu to its residents. The more modest, functional furnishings are a reminder that this room was also a place for patients to live and rest.
This small room is overflowing with ointment jars, vials and other medical instruments from the period. We discover the art of healing during the Renaissance, mixing traditional remedies with new discoveries. Here too, the atmosphere is imbued with spirituality, as medicine and faith were closely linked.
The Hospices’ kitchen demonstrates the daily concern to provide quality food for patients. With its large fireplace and gleaming brass, this room is a reminder of the importance of nutrition in the healing process. Period utensils, such as pots and pans, are still visible, illustrating the colossal amount of work carried out by the hospitable sisters.
Rogier van der Weyden’s polyptych
The Hospices de Beaune polyptych, also known as the “Last Judgment Altarpiece”, is a major work by Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden, produced around 1450. Commissioned to decorate the Hôtel-Dieu of the Hospices de Beaune, this masterpiece of 15th-century painting depicts the scenes of the Last Judgment with meticulous depth. Structured in several panels, the polyptych opens like a large illustrated book, revealing richly detailed scenes of the Archangel Michael weighing souls, the elect, the damned and the resurrection of the dead. The finesse of the details, the intensity of the expressions and the liveliness of the colors testify to van der Weyden’s extraordinary talent and the major role of this painting in the history of art. Even today, the polyptych attracts many visitors and art historians, testifying to the historical and cultural importance of the Hospices de Beaune.
Hospices and wine
The connection between Hôtel-Dieu and wine was established very early in its history. Shortly after its creation, the Hospices were offered plots of vines as gifts. These donations were often made by burghers or nobles wishing to ensure the salvation of their souls, or to thank the hospital for the care it had provided. Over the centuries, these donations continued, making the Hospices one of the largest vineyard owners in Burgundy. With around 60 hectares of vines, mainly Premier and Grand Cru, the Hospices enjoy an enviable position among Burgundy’s estates. Parcels are spread across the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits, including prestigious appellations such as Pommard, Meursault, Beaune and Corton. Revenues from these vineyards continue to be used to fund hospital operations.
The annual auction
This is one of the most prestigious events in the wine calendar. Since its creation in 1859, it has attracted numerous enthusiasts, collectors, professionals and the simply curious from all over the world. The event, which takes place every year on the third Sunday in November, has become a veritable institution. Today, the auction is not only a not-to-be-missed event for connoisseurs of fine wines, but also a charity event, with proceeds going to the Beaune hospital and various social causes. On the weekend of the sale, Beaune is transformed, with tastings, exhibitions and a festive atmosphere in the streets. All wines offered for sale come from the 60 hectares of vines belonging to the Hospices, covering a mosaic of terroirs ranging from simple village appellations to grand crus. Most of the wines are special cuvées, made from plot selections. These bottles are particularly prized by collectors for their quality, but also for their uniqueness.
Hospices de Beaune at the movies
The Hospices de Beaune, an emblem of Burgundy’s heritage, has not only left its mark on history and viticulture. They have also conquered the seventh art, becoming the backdrop for memorable films that have immortalized this architectural jewel:
La Grande Vadrouille
Released in 1966, Gérard Oury’s “La Grande Vadrouille” has become a staple of French cinema. With over 17 million viewers at the time of its release, this comedy, starring Louis de Funès and Bourvil, charmed moviegoers with its hilarious scenes and picturesque landscapes. One of the film’s most memorable scenes takes place at the Hospices de Beaune. As the characters try to escape the German occupiers, they find themselves disguised as nuns, and embark on an incredible journey across the roofs of Hôtel-Dieu. With its mix of humor and action, this passage gave the Hospices exceptional visibility, presenting them as a place not only of culture but also of entertainment.
Claude Lelouch and his love for Beaune
Iconic director Claude Lelouch has never hidden his fascination with Burgundy, and Beaune in particular. In 2009, he chose this city as the setting for his film “Ces amours-là”. This feature-length film tells the story of a woman through the different loves of her life. And it’s in Beaune, with the Hospices as a backdrop, that some of these stories come to life. Lelouch captures the romantic essence of the place, combining the majesty of the Hôtel-Dieu with the sweetness of a love story. More than just a setting, the Hospices in Lelouch’s film embody the passage of time, memory and romance. They are a character in their own right, witnessing the loves, sorrows and joys of the protagonists.
The Hospices de Beaune are more than just a historical monument; they are the living testimony of an era, of unprecedented generosity, and of an exceptional winemaking tradition. To visit the Hospices is to cross the centuries, to feel the soul of a Burgundy rich in history, art and flavors. It’s also a reminder that generosity and humanism, coupled with passion and tradition, can create timeless wonders.
If you would like to visit the Hospices de Beaune, you can find all the information you need on the website www.beaune-tourisme.fr