Built in the 12th century and magnificently preserved, this was a working, charitable hospital of the Middle Ages, one of whose wards is depicted in an ancient painting hung near the main entrance: there you see the very same large room that now stands before you, but lined in those days with compact, wooden, sleeping cubicles in which two and more patients would be crammed for warmth. To the side of the main entrance is the picturesque and fully-furnished Apothecary Room of those ancient days, but the primary reason you are here is to see the works of Hans Memling, the painter who belongs as much to Bruges as Brueughel belongs to Brussels, Van Eyck to Ghent, Rubens to Antwerp. He arrived here in the 1450s to study at the studio of Rogier van der Weyden (by whom he was greatly influenced), stayed on in a city whose cultural life had soared under the Dukes of Burgundy, and soon became the leading painter of Bruges. Housed in the former hospital chapel are just six of his works, but they are enough, in fact they overwhelm the senses.

That’s especially true of The Shrine to St. Ursula, a small box, less than three feet in length, shaped like a small Gothic cathedral, gilded throughout, its major illustrations appearing in the arched spaces on both sides and ends. At one end we see St. Ursula, like a giantess, spreading a protecting cloak around her ten main companions, all the while grasping the arrow with which she was killed. At the other end: the oft-repeated theme of the Virgin Mary offering an apple to the Baby Jesus, while at her feet the two nuns who had commissioned the work kneel in prayer. Look closely at panel one which depicts the arrival at the dock in Cologne—the city's buildings are portrayed exactly as they were.  In each of six tiny panels, Memling has portrayed multiple scenes that unfold in a time sequence within each panel; recreated an entire medieval world of commerce, religion and war; conveyed a message of idealistic commitment; drawn faces, bodies and buildings of haunting loveliness within the space of a few centimeters. In the Hospital of St. John, near the enchanting canals of Bruges: the single greatest masterpiece in a city of artistic wonders.