It was my first ever visit to a hospital as a tourist, not to mention a hospital built in the 12th century. Visiting such place is possible only in one town in Europe – Bruges (see me previous blog-post about Bruges), the red-brick medieval city which had miraculously stayed intact throughout hundreds years of history.
St. John’s Hospital, the first ever public health institution, has opened its doors in 1188(!) for travelers, pilgrims and the poor, closing in 1976 to become a museum.
And it turned out to be tinted with red just as the city.
Excellent paintings and medical instruments of the time show how medicine has been practiced until recently. The hospital ward, lined up with three rows of beds, divided patients into men, women and dead with doctors performing their duties directly in the ward. Physicians, familiar with antique doctrine of humorism and astrology made mainly remarks on sick’s persons temperament. The evil or impure humors were removed through purging or inserting an enema (clystering). Only in the 18th century the healing of the body and mind was replaced by a more familiar healthcare which is practiced today. Surgeons attached less importance to such things as humors. They tended to wounds and removed bullets. Bloodletting was left to the barbers who carried out surgical intervention until the 18th century. Alternatively some of the surgeons were barbers. While childbirth was left to women and physicians were rarely invited.
What surprised me was the presence of Red in just about every painting and object. to me it showed yet one more time diversity and importance of Red as a color: happiness and holiday, attracting attention, warning and danger, courage and sacrifice, as well as a color of martyrs who suffered for their faith.
St. John’s Hospital also houses the most important collection of paintings of Hans Memling. The story tells that the 15th century Flemish painter, born in Germany, was treated in Bruges after being wounded at war. Wanting to thank the citizens of Bruges for their treatment he settled in town, became a painter and left multiple painting, refusing to accept any payment for it. Elegant portraits, beautiful tissues and red drapes look real and breathtaking.
Practical information: St. John’s Hospital is centrally located in front of Our Lady’s Church, about 15 minute-walk from the train station, on Mariastraat 38, open Tue-Sun, 9.30 am – 5 pm, admission 8€, concessions 6€, children up to 12-free. Note that you may also visit the 17th century pharmacy next to the hospital (Tue-Sun, 11.45 am – 2 pm).