Les Hospices de Beaune, in the heart of the Burgundy wine region of France, were built in 1433 by Nicolas Rolin, the Chancellor of Burgundy, as a blatant effort to curry divine favor by providing a hospital for the poor. The buildings are laid out around a rectangular courtyard. Three of them have the distinctive polychrome roof tiles that make the Hospices an architectural gem. The tiles have a life of several hundred years – they were most recently replaced over 100 years ago and they still look bright and new. These colorful roofs are a frequent architectural detail in Burgundy, but they’re so expensive that usually only a small gable or turret has polychrome tiles. By covering such a huge expanse of roof with tile, Rolin was demonstrating his charitable largesse to God and man. No one could miss what a great guy he was.
The main ward has a row of beds on either side where patients were housed two to a bed. The ceiling above looks like the inverted hull of a boat. At the end of the ward was a chapel so that the patients could have their spiritual needs met by hearing mass twice a day while their bodies were treated by nuns. Rollin commissioned the top Flemish artist of the time, Rogier van der Weyden, to paint the altarpiece. It’s now in a special room across the courtyard. What an amazing work of art! Van Weyden used a brush with only two hairs to achieve a surface with a porcelain-like finish and extraordinary detail. A large magnifying glass moves along a rail to give greater access to every part of the painting.
Today, the Hospices are famous for an annual wine auction. It started in 1851 as a way to raise money to support the hospital from its own vineyards. There’s a three day festival called Les Trois Glorieuses that culminates in a Christies-run auction that raises prices considerably above market for approximately 800 barrels of wine.
Today’s expression, cuver son vin (koovay sohn vahn) means “to sleep it off.” It literally means “to ferment or to age one’s wine” so this idiom is kind of ironic. I wonder how many people have slept off their maladies – or went to their eternal rest – at the Hospices in the past nearly 500 years since it opened.