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  BRUGES : The St. John's Hospital


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Outside view of St. John's hospitalIn front of Our Lady's church stands the large complex of the medieval St. John's hospital, one of the oldest still existing hospitals in Europe. In 1978 it lost its function as hospital and harbors now the Memling museum, the hospital museum and the old pharmacy.

The oldest known document with rules for the hospital dates from 1188. It shows that the 'brothers and sisters' of the hospital did not really belong to a religious order with strict rules. In this respect, they did not make vows like other religious orders. This changed in 1236 when the bishop of Tournai insisted that the brothers and sisters made vows of obedience, chastity and poverty. They were also then obliged to wear a religious habit. It was only in 1459 that bishop Chevrot succeeded in transforming the lay order of brothers and sisters of St. John's hospital into a real religious order with formal vows. The reason why the occupants of the hospital accepted this was political : by placing themselves under the authority of a religious institution they could diminish the power of the city's magistrate and Duke Philip the Good.

The St. John's hospital was a powerful and rich institution, with a lot of real estate possessions inside and outside of Bruges. The sisters took care of the daily organization of the sick-bay and kitchen, whereas the brothers were responsible for the administration of the entire complex. Each group lived in a separate part of the hospital. Around 1600, however, St. John's hospital became an all-female institution.

Inside the courtyard of the Saint John's hospitalThe first and oldest part of the hospital was built in the 'Mariastraat', near to the Mariapoort (Mary's gate, one of the city gates of the first city walls). The hospital was built to provide housing and care for pilgrims, passers-by and traveling salesmen. Also sick people were accepted (at least if their illness was not contagious). Of course, the state of medical care then can not be compared to the present state of medicine in the 20th century. Basically, in the Middle-Ages people turned to the hospitals to find a roof, food and religious assistance in their hour of need and in their time of dying. Because of the continuous growing of the population in the Flemish cities, the hospital soon had to expand. During the 13th and 14th centuries more halls and sick-bays were added to the complex. Not all sick people were accepted : in Bruges there were other institutions for lepers and insane people.

In the 19th century it was decided that a new and more modern hospital building had to be constructed. This was done after 1855 by architect Isidoor Alderweirelt. Fortunately, the old buildings remained at the site so that they can still be visited and admired today. In the 1970's a new general hospital was built in Bruges so that after 8 centuries the St. John's hospital lost its function. It was transformed into a museum and a congress center. Inside the old chapel is now one of the smallest but most attractive museum of Bruges, the Memling museum. Here six paintings by the 15th century painter Hans Memling can be seen. Four of them were painted by Memling for the sisters of the hospital. The most famous painting is the relic shrine of St. Ursula. Furthermore, one can visit the former rooms and sick-bays of the medieval hospital, as well as the old pharmacy. In the buildings of the 19th century is now the cultural center 'Oud Sint-Jan' were numerous congresses and exhibitions are regularly organized.


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