Right in the centre of the old town of Lille in northern France, the Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse is a gem of a museum. From its entrance in cobbled rue de la Monnaie, you have no idea what lies behind those grand wooden doors. Set into a long wall peppered with arched windows and doorways, now mostly boutiques and gourmet food shops, the museum entrance opens up to reveal a series of buildings and courtyards and a truly fascinating visit.
History of the Hospice de la Comtesse
The former hospital was founded in 1237, in the oldest part of Lille. It was commissioned by Jeanne, Countess of Flanders. A medieval hospital to care for the sick and the poor, created within her own palace walls. It was also a hotel for pilgrims en route to Rome and Compostela.
More than 500 years of extension and adaptation followed. It has created a mixture of architectural styles dating mostly to the 15th– 17th centuries. The 15th century former sick room, where nuns would rent out shop space there to help pay for patient care, is glorious.
A hospital until the French Revolution, the Hospice de la Comtesse then became an orphanage and care home for the elderly. It has been a museum of art and history since the 1960s.
What to see at the Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse
The museum focuses mainly on local history. Though, every few years when the incredible Lille 3000 art event is held, extra space is given to temporary exhibitions.
In the former 15th century sick room, once a resting room for the sick, the poor and pilgrims, the vaulted ceiling was painted by a former orphan in the 17th century. A magnificent painting shows Jean of Flandres and her sister Margeurite surrounded by praying nuns and saints. They clearly believed they would go to heaven for their good works.
There is a beautiful 17th century kitchen with a vast fireplace. It’s worth visiting on its own merits for any lover of blue and white tiles, some Delft, others ancient copies. Rooms are furnished in Flemish style of the 17th and 18th centuries. There are many paintings including some of children. They were donated by their parents in thanks after being nursed by the nuns, reflecting a growing interest in the 17th century for the care of children. An infirmary, pharmacy and linen room with a 17th century press are fascinating.
Upstairs, in the former nuns’ dormitory, there are paintings including some by Louis and Francois Watteau. You’ll also discover sculptures, works of art and everyday life which illustrate the history of the city until the Revolution.
It’s a fascinating little museum and an easy way to spend an hour to an hour and a half and get to know more about Lille’s long history.