Hôpital Notre-Dame à la Rose

Marc Vuidar

Hôpital Notre-Dame à la Rose

Place Alix de Rosoit B- 7860 Lessines


Lessines, Belgium
Prix des Musees 2010, Prix du Public 2010

The Hospital Our Lady with the Rose,  a unique museum inside a medieval hospital site


The Hospital Our lady with the Rose is located in Lessines, a small city with 18, 000 inhabitants, 40 kilometers far from Brussels. Lessines is situated in the French speaking part of Belgium and in the Province" Hainaut". That city is also well-known for being the birthplace of the famous surrealist painter Reneacute; Magritte.

This hospital stands in the historical heart of the city, alongside the river "la Dendre" and near the market place. It received a first protection in the 1940ies by being classified by the authorities of the Walloon region as a piece of heritage. The hospital was at that time still running as a medical institution, an old people's home, and will go on with its nursing activities till 1980.

The Best in Walloon heritage

The first real restoring possibilities came up in 1993 with the election of the Hospital Our Lady with the Rose in the list of major and exceptional pieces of heritage in the Walloon region. What were the reasons for that grading?

a. Longevity: nearly 750 years of uninterrupted hospital activity.

This longevity was made possible thanks to the permanent presence of a community of Augustinian sisters all through the centuries. The Hospital Our Lady with the Rose of Lessines was built in 1242 by lord Arnould IV of Audenaerde and his wife Alix de Rosoit, a French princess.  This creation was indeed inspired by the Catholic Church and by charitable motivations. During the 13th century, many " Hocirc;tel-Dieu" were built in Germany, Belgium and in the north of France.

Our Hospital in Lessines received thousands of poor beggars all through the years, kept on working till 1980 and passed through some difficult periods : war of religion, French revolution, epidemics, first and second World wars. Till the 19th century, the Augustinian sisters were responsible for the good working of the Hospital, under the leadership of a prioress. After the French revolution (at the end of the 18th century), the town took over the managing of the Hospital via the Civil Hospice Commission. But even when more laypersons joined the establishment (as nurses, nurses' aides and maintenance staff), the religious community always had a clear important role to play until the very last Hospital (now a geriatrics clinic) patients left in 1980.

b. Remarkable state of conservation of the whole site

Our Lady with the Rose Hospital is much more than just a museum: it is one of the last surviving models of a self sufficient hospital site, complete with its main convent and hospital building, 16th and 17th c., its farm, its gardens (healing plants, vegetable patch and fruit orchards) and its annexes (cemetery, ice house, distilleryhellip;) . Outdoor architectural elements show clear Flemish Renaissance influence whereas the cloister is characterized by late gothic style. The main hospital building, encircling an inner garden, still has its four parts with all the traditional rooms: chapel, sickrooms, refectory, pharmacy, parlour, the study of Mother Superior, the community's dormitoryhellip; 

c. Richness of its artistic and scientific collections.

The hospital can be proud of its great variety of valuable collections: more than 12, 000 objects had been listed. All the pieces of art - furniture, jewelry, paintings, books, statues, porcelain, religious ornamentshellip;. - were all found back among the treasures kept safe by the sisters' community. The great coherence and attractive character of these genuine collections are an additional value for the site. If one masterpiece had to be chosen, I would surely point out that strange painting of "the Lamentation around Jesus-Christ", late 16th c. where Jesus-Christ is represented with a woman's breasts: an interesting and very rare pictorial expression of a feminine spirituality at that time. But one of the major interests of the collections is to be found in the rich scientific, medical and pharmaceutical literature and instruments dealing with many fields in the history of medicine (surgery, ophthalmology, obstetrics, humoral medicine, anaesthesia hellip;).

Original museum process

When the hospital stopped its nursing activities in 1980, no one believed in a flourishing future for that institutionhellip;, except a little group of volunteers. During 15 years, they kept "the fire burning" in this hospital by giving it a new function, that of a museum. With passion, they believed in the great artistic and cultural value of that hospital and started to receive visitors on Sunday afternoon. And year after year, these volunteers managed to convince all the funding authorities to show interest to this great heritage site and to start urgent renovation works. In 1993, the whole site was elected by the competent regional authorities as a major Walloon heritage site. This decision made it possible for the city to receive higher funds for the restoration, up to 95 % of the total amount.

In 1997, the city council finally decided to spend some money to hire a few persons in order to manage and promote the museum in a professional way.

And, in 2000, huge restoration works could start thanks to European and regional funds. The total costs reached the 20 million Euros and were used to restore the whole historical building but also to give the museum a new "up to date" scenography and some useful infrastructure to receive the visitors decently and comfortably. A great challenge for the team was to keep the museum working during the 10 years of renovation. And so did we!

This last decade, working and visit conditions were not always easy but, during that period, visitors had a unique opportunity to see how such an exceptional heritage was being restored. We had to deal with other difficulties during these renovation works : security of the collections or  the difference between the interests of the responsible architects of heritage sites and those of a museum team who wants to receive visitors decently and to show them as soon as possible all the treasures of the museum.

But we managed to hold on and to keep the team working during that transition period.  We started in 1997 with 4 persons and, during the next 15 years, the team grew up progressively to reach the number of 13 persons at work today.

The Belgium Museum of the Year Award 2010

Last year the hospital museum received a double award: the Walloon museum award from the Jury and that from the Audience. The Jury appreciated the extraordinary beauty of the site but also its high architectural, artistic, cultural and social value. All the genuine collections kept by the sisters all through the centuries, together with the efforts of the volunteers in the eighties and nineties to save that building, were also considered as very positive by the jury members. We also wanted to focus on the school public and on all the categories of children. That's why we published many didactic booklets for a discovery of the museum in class or family contexts.

Finally, we can say that combining modernity and heritage, as well as in the architectural renovations as in the temporary exhibitions, was greatly appreciated. Thus, heritage should not be considered as an "old sacred treasure" to keep secure and untouched in a glass case. It has to live and interact with contemporary artistic, technical and social environment. 

The Audience Prize was also a great honour for us. Because this was not easy to convince people to come and visit an old hospital, immediately connected with pain, suffering and death in everybody's mind.
But all the efforts we made during these last 25 years were all directed towards a change of mind in the public; we constantly try to go on with the spirit of hospitality by receiving our visitors with great care, making systematic guided tours, but also receiving various artists for some temporary exhibitions and organizing specific artistic performances (concerts, conferences, evening cultural interactive sessions hellip;).

I would like to end this presentation with the idea that the impact Our Lady with the Rose hospital leaves on the visitors is from a different nature.  Indeed, personal and universal aspects are here so present. Matters that concern all of us, individually and socially, are dealt with during the whole visit: sickness, suffering, life and death, solidarity, charity, care for the weakest, spirituality, self-sacrifice, religious faith hellip; To understand how our ancestors tried to cope with hard, painful situations and experiences, without all the scientific and technological developments that are nowadays available, can be some kind of a lesson for all of us and be some help in our personal mind and soul enrichment. 



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