CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Curator's Project

‘Feel the Heartbeat’ at Museum Sint-Janshospitaal

February, 2024

In 2023 the permanent exhibition of Museum Sint-Janshospitaal was renewed. The museum is one of the thirteen locations of Musea Brugge and tells the story of almost 900 years of care at this Bruges site. The St John’s Hospital is one of the oldest and best-preserved hospital buildings in Europe. As far back as the twelfth century, it provided a warm welcome to everyone in need of care or a warm place to sleep – travelers as well as the poor and sick. The collection that is displayed there today consists mainly of objects and artworks that are linked in some way to this history: objects such as a sedan chair and medical instruments, religious items that comforted the sick and the resident sisters, and above all many works of art, such as the world-famous paintings by Hans Memling. However, fragmentary changes in the display made since the previous redesign in 2001 had largely obscured the interrelationships between these exhibits, leaving many visitors somewhat unclear as to what sort of building they were in. St. John’s is an old hospital but it looks like a church; it focuses on medical history, but also displays masterpieces by Hans Memling. It was high time to map out a clear line in the story once again and to present a cohesive whole that is also in line with present-day expectations. This was no easy task, faced with a diverse collection spanning centuries, in a superb monumental building that is an important part of the story while not possessing the obvious external characteristics of a museum. This article will clarify some of the principles and challenges that dominated the project of renewal.


For almost 900 years, empathy and hospitality have been embedded in the DNA of the hospital and the surrounding site. These qualities were inspired by Christian values. Many of our visitors from around the world may not be familiar with the Christian principles on which medieval hospitals were based. But they are essentially universal themes that still concern us today: hospitality, empathy, care, life and death, body and soul, suffering and giving meaning to life. These were taken as the point of departure in developing the new storylines around the museum. The various themes deal with all aspects of the hospital, including spiritual as well as physical care. As visitors enter the exhibition, they see questions and answers focusing on hospitality and empathy – such as who initially found a place to rest at the hospital or received care here? But also: who are we caring for today, as individuals and as a society? The next section looks at medical developments and the work of the sisters who cared for the bodies and souls of those who came to the hospital down the centuries (fig. 1). The visit ends with the themes of suffering, farewell, and mourning. All the themes are dealt with primarily through objects that were originally linked in some way to the St. John’s Hospital. The masterpieces by Hans Memling have been assigned a special place within the new museum, where they receive the attention they deserve.

Section on the hospital sisters, who cared for the bodies and souls of those who came to the hospital down the centuries<br>© Musea Brugge / Stad Brugge

Fig. 1. Section on the hospital sisters, who cared for the bodies and souls of those who came to the hospital down the centuries.
© Musea Brugge / Stad Brugge

Another fundamental factor was the building itself, which naturally plays an important role in the hospital’s story. Before the museum closed for renovation in February 2023, two exhibitions had taken place there: Underneath the Shade We Lay Grounded: Otobong Nkanga (25 June to 25 September 2022) and Face to Face with Death: Hugo van der Goes, Old Masters and New Interpretations (28 October 2022 to 5 February 2023), for which most of the objects in the permanent exhibition had already been moved to the storage facility. These two exhibitions brought out the spaciousness and openness of the old infirmary to fine effect, and it became clear that we wanted to preserve these qualities in the new permanent exhibition. The building is both a marvel and a challenge: it is a large, open space with high windows, divided by rows of monumental stone and wooden columns. It is not possible to hang anything directly on the walls or columns. This means that for every object that is displayed, a partition or display case has to be installed. The challenge was to exhibit all the objects we wanted to show without detracting from the building’s magnificence or the sense of openness.

All these challenges were tackled by the project team of Musea Brugge in close partnership with the Ghent design agency Wondering. Basing itself on the input supplied by the museum and the objects selected for display, the Wondering designers took an active role in decision-making on how to tell the stories and to set out the themes. They also designed the scenography. For the colors, it was decided to use the color scheme in the building itself, adding a few colors as accents. To preserve the sense of openness, semi-transparent curtains were used instead of partitions where possible, and numerous gaps were created between partitions, through which visitors can catch a glimpse of the space beyond. The biggest change of all, perhaps, was moving the entrance to the other side of the building, which helped to create an entirely new experience. Another major spatial innovation was the removal of the walls separating the hospital church from the ward where the sick had been tended, reinstating the original connection between the two areas.

Past and present in Museum Sint-Janshospitaal

The themes that serve as signposts through the suggested route around the museum are both universal and topical. The challenge was to find different ways of linking the Old Masters to present-day society in the new museum. The solutions include interactive elements that invite visitors to explore themes in greater depth and video portraits of those providing diverse forms of care today, who discuss the relationships between the care in St. John’s Hospital and today’s world: among them a psychiatrist, a forensic therapist, and a bereavement counselor. Each reflects on the themes as seen from their own professional practice and experience, thus giving visitors new perspectives and opening up new questions.

Besides these interactive elements and video portraits, the themes that have been depicted for centuries are enhanced by the addition of works by living artists. The first thing visitors see when entering the museum is  neon letters reading Persona Grata, a piece by the French artist Lahouari Mohammed Bakir. It expresses the desire to be welcomed and accepted while at the same time hinting at the far better-known antonym Persona non grata. Bakir deliberately plays on the confusion between the two expressions, creating a linguistic trap that questions the reality of hospitality.

The Bridge by Patricia Piccinini, 2023<br>© Musea Brugge / Stad Brugge

Fig. 2. The Bridge by Patricia Piccinini, 2023
© Musea Brugge / Stad Brugge

The Australian artist Patricia Piccinini made a new sculpture especially for the museum. Her hyperrealistic style harmonizes well with the realism of the Flemish primitives such as Hans Memling, and her work illuminates diverse aspects of empathy and care for “the Other” – a perfect match for the story of the St. John’s Hospital. Her sculpture for the museum, The Bridge, displays a seated woman who is comforting a half-human creature (fig. 2). Through the woman’s warm, realistic embrace, Piccinini succeeds in gaining our empathy for the weird creature and banishing any feelings of revulsion. The sculpture engages in dialogue with the Old Masters presented around it, such as a sixteenth-century painting with the story of the Good Samaritan. The artworks raise the question of who we care for, or want to care for, and whether it involves having to overcome an initial reaction of judgement and reluctance. Piccinini’s sculpture invites us to reflect on important social and ethical questions about care and respect for other people.

Another absolute masterpiece that was made especially for the museum is  Liggende-Arcangelo II, 2023 by the Belgian sculptor Berlinde De Bruyckere (fig. 3). It depicts a life-sized fallen Archangel, a monumental figure lying on an impressive tomb-shaped pedestal. The work was inspired by the Covid-19 crisis: it is a monument to honor those who cared for the sick, the angels of our time. The fragility and mortality of body and mind, care, and grief rituals together form the thread that runs through De Bruyckere’s oeuvre. Berlinde De Bruyckere’s work forges links between the world of present-day sculpture and the legacy of the Old Masters, and between religious iconography and the history of care. The sculpture stands in what was once the hospital church, where it engages in dialogue with Memling’s Shrine of St. Ursula.

The final theme in the museum is about mourning and paying one’s respects to the dead – which are often treated as taboo subjects today. To make this theme more accessible and easier to broach, Musea Brugge asked the artist and counselor of farewell ritual Barbara Raes and the textile artist Klaas Rommelaere to create an installation. They took items of clothing belonging to deceased loved ones, donated by the people of Bruges, and personal testimonies about bidding farewell and mourning, combining them into a participatory project entitled “The Whisper Sofa”: a warm, soft resting place in the museum which invites visitors to slow down and listen to memories and reflections (fig. 4).

The Old Masters and Hans Memling

Besides the contemporary new acquisitions, the collection displayed consists primarily of historical objects and art with direct links to the hospital. Examples include a pre-Eyckian reliquary of St. Ursula, the precursor of Memling’s Shrine of St. Ursula. We also find a fifteenth-century Nativity crib that probably belonged to the sisters of St. John’s Hospital, and a so-called Friendship cup. Engraved on this seventeenth-century cup are the medallions of four Bruges care institutions, each with its own specialized form of care – which is a visible testament to the city’s centuries-old extensive care network. A painting by Johannes Beerblock from 1778 depicts the hospital wards and the activities that took place there. This painting serves as the introduction to the theme of medical care (fig. 5). The objects on display, such as tableware and a sedan chair, can all be identified in the painting.

The painting by Johannes Beerblock from 1778 depicts the hospital wards and its daily activities. This is the start of the section on medical care in the hospital through the ages.<br>© Musea Brugge / Stad Brugge

Fig. 5. The painting by Johannes Beerblock from 1778 depicts the hospital wards and its daily activities. This is the start of the section on medical care in the hospital through the ages.
© Musea Brugge / Stad Brugge

The indisputable masterpieces of the collection are the seven works by Hans Memling. The Shrine of St. Ursula stands in the former hospital church – in dialogue with the sculpture by Berlinde De Bruyckere. The other six works by Memling – including the monumental altarpiece of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist and the Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove – have been installed together in an impressive glass structure whose shape was inspired by the Shrine of St. Ursula (fig. 6). In this way the Memlings are placed in the limelight while retaining the link with the rest of the exhibition. There is also a convergence of content at this point of the exhibition route, in the form of absolute artistic masterpieces of the collection with a strong connection to the medieval hospital: four of the Memlings on display were commissioned by the friars and sisters of the hospital and can thus still be admired over 500 years later, in the place for which they were made.

In the next few years, Musea Brugge will be conducting in-depth research on Hans Memling’s paintings. During the museum’s closure, the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) subjected the paintings to months of technical research. The research findings are currently being processed and will be published on the website, the content of which is constantly being expanded. Visitors will soon be able to enter Memling’s world in an immersive multimedia experience to open on the hospital’s attic in the autumn of 2024. This interactive experience will add an extra dimension to the museum visit on the floor below.

The display of the works by Hans Memling. The shape of the glass structure is inspired by Memling’s Shrine of St Ursula.<br>© Musea Brugge / Stad Brugge

Fig. 6. The display of the works by Hans Memling. The shape of the glass structure is inspired by Memling’s Shrine of St Ursula.
© Musea Brugge / Stad Brugge

Welcome to our new museum!

The museum had been closed for a total of 10 months before its festive reopening on 15 December 2023. But long before then, work had started on designing the new stories, selecting the objects, deciding on the various ways in which to engage and communicate with the visitors, and the scenographic design. And many other activities took place during the months of closure: besides the construction and installation of the new permanent exhibition, maintenance work was done on the building, KIK-IRPA conducted research on the Memling collection, several objects were restored, and a new book about Hans Memling in Bruges was published by Hannibal Books. As always, in the case of major ambitious and multi-faceted projects, all this was only possible thanks to the hard work, dedication, and enthusiasm of many colleagues at Musea Brugge and numerous external partners. Museum Sint-Janshospitaal has been open for a few months now, and we shall soon be learning whether all our plans and visions have worked out as we hoped or whether adjustments need to be made here and there. We take great pleasure in inviting everyone to visit the new museum and we look forward to hearing your feedback!

Marijn Everaarts was formerly Project Coordinator Museum Sint-Janshospitaal at Musea Brugge in Bruges. She has been an associate member of CODART since 2021. Geert Souvereyns is Curator Social History at Musea Brugge in Bruges.