Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – Les Hospices de Beaune

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – Les Hospices de Beaune

To oenophiles, Beaune is the uncontested wine capital of Burgundy. Inhabited by wine growers and merchants, it stands on cellars holding millions of gallons of its famous wines, surrounded by thousand acres of vineyards. Yet a majority of the wine tourists and buyers who descend on the prosperous historic town each year may not realize that it owes its wine fame and affluence to a medieval charity hospital.

A Palatial Lifeline for the Poor

Burgundy-Beaune courtyard.

Designed in Gothic Burgundian-Flemish style, the Hospices de Beaune roofs are covered with varnished tiles.

When in 1443, Nicholas Rolin, Chancelor to Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good, founded the Hospices de Beaune, the country was emerging from the Hundred Year War, a period of conflicts that had pitted against each other the crowns of France and England and their respective allies for over a century. Unrest, plague and famine had decimated the countryside. It was to attend to the most destitute population of the area that Rolin and his wife Guignone de Salins created a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, inspired by the most outstanding hôtels-Dieu (charity hospitals) of Flanders, a province that had recently been annexed to the Duchy of Burgundy. Rolin, who had extensively observed these hospitals, charged Flemish architect Jacques Wiscrère to create a “palace for the poor” in Beaune.

Burgundy-Beaune dormitory.

The hospital ward still displays 15th century canopied beds used by the patients of five centuries ago.

An unassuming gate in the somber stone façade topped by a Gothic high-pitched slate roof leads into the vast rectangular courtyard of a stunning Burgundian-Flemish architectural complex. There, the elegant roofline of steep dormers is covered by intricate lozenge patterns of varnished tiles in shades of yellow, red, green and black. Around the courtyard, the layout of the buildings is especially designed to efficiently support the life of the charitable institution. Inside, the most striking feature is the 50-meter (160-foot) long Grand’Salle.

Burgundy-Hospice de Beaune Chapel.

The small ward reserved to isolate patients “in danger of dying” had its own chapel.

This main hospital ward still displays 15th century furnishings, including the 28 red-canopied and curtained beds used by patients five centuries ago. The beds seem quite spacious for their time, until it is pointed out that they were expected to accommodate up to three patients each. At the far-end, the chapel is an integral part of the hall, so that patients could attend mass from their bed. A magnificent 15th century polyptych of The Last Judgment by famous Flemish master Roger Van de Weyden, which then hung over the altar can now be admired in all its glory in a dedicated room of the museum.

Burgundy-Beaune apothecary.

The apothecary.

There is also a separate, smaller ward with only 12 beds and its own chapel. It was an intensive care unit before its time, designed to separate patients “in danger of dying” from the merely sick. Other parts of the Hospices include an extensive apothecary with its beakers, mortars and earthenware jars, and a vast kitchen with an imposing gothic fireplace. Additional halls once dedicated to the care of orphans and the elderly as well as the refectory, library and other common areas are now an impressive museum that showcases treasures bequeathed to the Hospices over the centuries.

A Foundation for all Eternity

Burgundy-Beaune pharmacy.

The pharmacy’s laboratory.

A savvy businessman and diplomat, Nicholas Rolin used his vast knowledge of charitable hospitals to make his Hospices an institution capable of sustaining itself through the centuries. He established an unambiguous charter for the establishment: to care for the sick, elderly, orphans, women about to give birth and the destitute. He then set up endowments to support his foundation, and promptly placed it under the spiritual authority of the Holy See, thus freeing it for all times from the oversight of the local bishop and any other clerical coercion. His business model worked. The Hospices even managed to survive the French Revolution (1789) relatively unscathed. The institution continued providing services to the local population until 1971, at which point it became a museum and its medical functions were transferred to a modern facility.

Burgundy-Hospices kitchen.

The kitchen of the Hospices de Beaune.

And this is where we get to the wine. The Hospices received their first gift of a vineyard In 1457, a tradition that continued for five centuries and grew to include farms, woodland and works of art. Today, the vineyard estate is around 60 hectares (150 acres), entrusted to 22 vintners selected by its manager. It produces some of the most prized vintages of Burgundy. Since 1859, the town of Beaune has hosted an annual wine auction held at the Hospices on the third Sunday in November. Nowadays, this most famous wine charity auction in the world is organized by the renowned Christie’s auction house. All proceeds are used to support the new hospital facilities as well as the conservation of the historic Hospices.

Burgundy-Beaune polyptyc,

Polyptych of the Last Judgment by Flemish master Roger Van de Weyden (circa 15th century).

 

Good to Know 

  • Getting there – By car. Beaune is 310 kilometers from Paris via highway (A6) and 45 kilometers from Dijon (A31). By train. It’s a 20-minute non-stop connection from Dijon to Beaune with frequent departures throughout the day. From Paris, take one of the many for the high-speed train (TGV) from Paris-Gare de Lyon to Dijon and connect to Beaune.
  • Visiting – The Museum of the Hospices de Beaune,  Rue de l’Hôtel-Dieu, 21200 Beaune, France is open every day from 9:00 am to 6:30 pm. Contact:  tel. +33 (0)3 80 24 45 00, email hospices.beaune@ch-beaune.fr.

Location, location, location!

Hospices de Beaune

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – From Vix to Fontenay

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – From Vix to Fontenay

One of the joys of exploring the rich archeological heritage of Burgundy is the abundance and variety of its significant sites, sometimes millennia apart, but always within easy reach of each other. Today, I have the rare opportunity to view the Treasure of Vix, a unique find that has brought archeologists to reconsider the Celtic history of the area.

Vix-Iron Age household goods.

2,500 years ago, ,Celtic blacksmiths were producing sophisticated household items.

Mention Celts today, and most people will correctly think of the early inhabitants of the British Isles and their descendents. True, but only partially so. Long before the Romans set out to conquer the known world of their time, the Celts had been dominating Europe throughout the first millennium B.C. They were not a people per se, but rather a coalition of tribes reaching from the highlands of Anatolia (now Asian Turkey) to the British Isles, who came together in times of danger. At a major crossroad of their trade routes, Burgundy was ideally situated to become a center of Celtic civilization.

 

From Barbarians to Sophisticated Iron Age Merchants

Burgundy-VixKrater.

The largest known metal vessel from Western classical antiquity, the Krater of Vix stands 1.63 meter (65 inches) high and has a capacity of 1,100 liters (290 US gallons).

The Celts, however, left no written records, and in any case, it is a universal truth that history is written by the winners. So that when Julius Ceasar embarked on the conquest of Gaul (the Roman name for what is now France) and decimated the confederation of Gallic tribes after a protracted siege and fierce four-day battle at their stronghold of Alesia (some 60 kilometers, or 40 miles northwest of Dijon) in 52 B.C., the Celts were fated to go down in the collective memory as hordes of ferocious barbarians. Local populations settled in the new Gallo-Roman towns in the valleys while the proud hilltop cities of their ancestors were reclaimed by nature. It was not until the second half of the 19th century ushered an era of growing interest in archeology that searches began to reveal the sophistication of the tribes that had prospered here throughout the Metal Ages. Their blacksmiths had left us advanced tools and weaponry, their artisans a variety of household goods and ornaments.

Burgundy-Vix Krater handle.

The three handles, weigh about 46 kilos (100 pounds) each and are elaborately decorated with grimacing Gorgons.

Then, on a January morning in 1953, in a field near the village of Vix (pronounced Vii), an amateur archeologist scratched the mud at the foot of a tree recently uprooted by a storm, and found a Gorgon sticking its tongue at him from the handle of an immense bronze jar. He has just discovered the Krater of Vix, the largest known vessel of the ancient world. Decorated in the Spartan style with a frieze of warriors striding to battle, the gigantic krater, identified by experts as Athenian work made around 530 B.C. testifies to the trade links between the Celtic world and the Mediterranean.

Burgundy-Vix Lady torque.

The 24 carat gold Celtic torque is adorned with winged horses inspired by Middle Eastern bestiary.

Further excavations revealed it to be part of a treasure accumulated in the funeral chamber of a clearly high-ranking woman in Celtic society. Seated on a ceremonial chariot, the Lady of Vix was bedecked with jewelry from the farthest reaches of the known world. In addition to necklaces of amber from the Baltic shores and Etruscan rings, she was wearing a magnificent torque (diadem) of pure gold. Probably of Syrian origin, the thick curved headband ended in two globes that rested in front of her ears, each supported by a lion paw and decorated with tiny winged horse.

Burgundy-Vix Lady headband.

Close up of the delicate ornamentation of the Lady of Vix’s pure gold headband.

In the past decade, a fortress village has been discovered on the site. It shows all of the features of a high-status settlement: large fortifications, the presence of a citadel, dwellings for hundreds of people, grain warehouses and water cylinders, as well as five more burial mounds. Excavations are ongoing, but already there are strong indications that this settlement dating back 2,500 years could present the first signs of urbanization in Western Europe, and be the first town in France. The enormous variety of Mediterranean imports indicates wide-ranging connections, suggesting that the town was a thriving center for the exchange of raw materials from Northern Europe and Mediterranean goods. The exploration is not open to the public but all the original finds, along with a reconstruction of the Lady’s burial chamber, are on display in beautifully curated exhibits just a few miles away in the recently opened Musée du Pays Châtillonais (museum of local histor

The Abbey of Fontenay

It’s only a thirty-minute drive southwest on charming country roads from the Iron Age treasures of Vix to one of the most spectacular example of Romanesque monastic architecture remaining in Europe. Founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in 1118, the Abbey of Fontenay is a prime architectural example of the Cistercian order.

Burgundy-Fontenay Romanesque church.

Dedicated in 1147, is one of the oldest Cistercian churches in France.

Who were the Cistercians? They were a monastic order that felt the Benedictine monks were no longer true to the Rules of their 6th century founder, Saint Benedict of Nursia. The Rules specified that a monk should divide his day equally between prayer, study and manual labor, while living a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. Cistercian abbeys usually selected an inhospitable place such as the remote marshy site of Fontenay, and made it livable. One of the four founding houses of the order, its austere architecture is a remarkable illustration of the ideal of self-sufficiency practiced by the early Cistercian communities.

Burgundy-Fontenay iron works

Iron works were a major source of activity for the monks.

Within its enclosing wall, the abbey has retained all its original buildings: the church and cloister, the monks’ day room and dormitory, warming room, refectory, guest house, bakery and iron works. The later, with its staggering hydraulic hammer, recalls the part the Cistercians played in the technological progress of the Middle Ages, and is one of the oldest industrial buildings in France. At the height of its activity, the Abbey of Fontenay accommodated about 300 monks.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The Treasure of Vix is located in Châtillion-sur-Seine, 90 kilometers (55 miles) northwest of Dijon via pleasant country roads, and 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Paris via highway (A5). The Abbey of Fontenay is located 80 kilometers from Dijon and 250 kilometers from Paris via highway (A6). Or is is an easy 66 minute train ride via TGV (express train), from Paris-Gare de Lyon to Montbard, 5 kilometers away from the Abbey
  • Visiting –The Treasure of Vix can be seen at The Musée du Pays Châtillonais, 14 Rue de la Libération, 21400 Châtillion-sur-Seine, France, is open from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm., Wednesday through Monday from September 1 to June 30, and every day in July and August. Closed on national holidays. Contact : tel. +33 (0)3 80 91 24 67, email. accueil@musee-chatillonnais.fr. The Abbey of Fontenay, 21599 Montbard, France, is open daily year round. Hours vary with the seasons and are posted on the website. Contact: tel. +33 (0)3 80 92 16 88.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Musée du Pays Châtillonais

Abbey of Fontenay, France