Grenoble’s Old Bishop’s Palace: A Museum with Surprises

The Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Musée de l’Ancien Évêché, Grenoble, France

The history of the Isère Department is sweepingly and excellently looked at in the building that used to be home to the bishops of Grenoble.  The collection is not vast, but very well presented, and makes for a good starting point for further exploration of the city.

The building has its origins in the 13th century, but it naturally underwent constant changes over the centuries – most notably in the 17th century under the guidance of the popular bishop Étienne le Camus.  With the French Revolution, the building became public property and in 1800 it housed Grenoble’s first Museum of Fine Arts, made up of works confiscated from the clergy and nobility.  However, in 1801 the bishops were allowed to return to their former residences and the museum moved to a different site nearby.  With the bishop’s return, changes and improvements were carried out in the Palace until 1906, when the bishop moved out permanently, and the building got taken over by Grenoble University.

Old Bishops' Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

A succession of institutes and laboratories found their homes in the palace, but in 1988 the university sold the building back to the Isère Council, with the intention of turning it into a museum showing the work of local artists.  This didn’t happen.  A fire wrecked part of the building the following year, but on a positive note the construction of the nearby tramline led to the discovery of a 4th century baptistry.  This led to new and ambitious plans to overhaul the building, bring out the original architectural elements and use modern design to create a space for the history of the Isère region.  The museum opened in 1998 – the baptistry in 1999.

And by history of Isère, it means from the very beginning.  A fascinating and well presented group of objects from the first human inhabitants start the collection, and go through history until the beginning of the 20th century.

Ochre fragments and grinder, c10,000 BC, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France.  The ochre was used as a paint and as a disinfectant.

Parts of a necklace made of turritellae, 13,000BC, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Model of the sheepfold of Grand Rivoire at Sassenage, c4800, R Picavet and Lythos, 1998, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Pots, cauldrons and ladles, c4500 BC, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Cut flint dagger serving as a knife, with a vegetable fibre handle fixed with resin, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Display of objects from the Bronze Age, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Bracelets in bronze, c500BC, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Decorated vase, 1500BC, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Mosaic of parrots, made from marble and glass, 2nd century AD, from a house in Vienne, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Detail of the mosaic of parrots, made from marble and glass, 2nd century AD, from a house in Vienne, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Decorated handle with a key, 1st/2nd century AD, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Decorated handle with a key, 1st/2nd century AD, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Three elements on a frieze from a temple or public building, Gallo-Roman, from Vienne, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Funerary monument of Gaius Papius Secundus, 2nd century AD, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France.  He was a Grenoble native who was a city official in Vienne.

Elements of a hypocaust stamped with the name Clarianus, Gallo-Roman, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Small glass bottle in the form of an amphora, 1st century, Italian made, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Six plates, 1st-2nd century AD, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Mirror, Gallo-Roman, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Iron and bronze hammer, Roman era, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Buried treasure, 3rd century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France. It was found 2.5m underground, and it was broken when it was taken out. It appears to have been buried during the reign of Tetricus, emperor of the Gauls from 268-273.

Fresco of a house in Cularo (Grenoble), 1st/2nd century AD, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Tombstone, 6th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France. “in this tomb by the mercy of Christ repose in peace, in the memory of…”

Model of the villa Gilly-sur-Isere, 3rd century By H Bathélémy and Lythos, 1998, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Detail of the rubbish pit in the model of the villa Gilly-sur-Isere, 3rd century By H Bathélémy and Lythos, 1998, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Ladle and pots, Roman era, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Ring of Dauphin Guigues 8th, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France. with the inscription “Guigo dalphinus Viennensis et Albonis comes”

Virgin and Child, end of 12th/beginning of 13th century, made by a local workshop, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France. She was burned – they know not why.

Detail of Virgin and Child, end of 12th/beginning of 13th century, made by a local workshop, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Detail of Virgin and Child, end of 12th/beginning of 13th century, made by a local workshop, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France. 

St Michael weighing souls on a capital, 11th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Daniel and the Lions on a capital, 11th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Altar screen from the chapel at the castle at Bon Repos, end of 15th/beginning of 16th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France.  There was also a scene of the Nativity which has been lost.  It represents Jacob and seven of his sons, prophesying the coming of Christ, while on the right, Dan, the bad son, predicts the coming of the antichrist.

Detail of the Altar screen from the chapel at the castle at Bon Repos, end of 15th/beginning of 16th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Detail of Dan predicting the coming of the antichrist, from the Altar screen from the chapel at the castle at Bon Repos, end of 15th/beginning of 16th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Detail of the Altar screen from the chapel at the castle at Bon Repos, end of 15th/beginning of 16th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Medieval wooden bowl and spoon, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

St Roch, end of 15th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Detail of St Roch, end of 15th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Detail of St Roch, end of 15th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Playing cards, 18th century, by the Grenoble Card Maker, Mazet; the printing presss by Maitre Cartier Cheminade, 18th century, a celebrated card maker of the period, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Bottle and flask, 15th/16th century, glass, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Rosette with a white cross, enamel and iron, Middle Ages, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Portrait of Jean-François Champollion, 1823, Madame de Rumilly, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France.  Champollion was a scholar, best known for deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Detail of the hieroglyphs he deciphered, from the portrait of Jean-François Champollion, 1823, Madame de Rumilly, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Bag for collecting aromatic herbs for use in the production of Chartreuse, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Bottle of Chartreuse, after 1869, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Bread stamp, 19th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Jug in the shape of a woman, early 19th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Box of paints, 1870-1880, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Statuette of a school teacher, 19th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Corset, c1890, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Cheese drainer, 19th century, with a milk whisk, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Modern silk cocoons and a silkworm egg box, 1900, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Back of a terracotta hat stand, 19th century, with cap, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Wooden and terracotta hat stands, 19th century, with caps, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Wooden hat stand, 19th century, and a cap, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Child’s bonnet, c1840, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

A range of paintings, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

View of Pont-en-Royans, 1853, François-Joseph Deschamps, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Portait of Urbain Basset, 1872, Eugène Faure, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

The Shepherd, 1896, Tancrède Bastet, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

The bridge of St Lawrence in Grenoble, 1837, Jules Jean-Baptiste Guédy, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Capital from the cloisters of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Grenoble, 1132-1148, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Jean de la Croix de Chevrieres, 1607, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France.  He was bishop from 1607-1619, an advocate general and president of the parlement of Dauphiné.

Remains of the 13th century palace, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Fragment of a fresco, 13th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Mitre of the Archbishop of Vienne, 17th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Going downstairs for the next part of the museum takes you to the level of the Roman city.  There are remains of the city walls that were built in 286-293AD, to protect Cularo from the increasing number of attacks by barbarian tribes.  Interestingly, though, the walls were clearly not constructed in response to an immediate threat, because they are so well built – which you can kind of see.

Roman Wall and tower, end of 3rd century AD, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Roman wall, end of 3rd century AD, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

While constructing a tram line outside the Cathedral and Bishop’s Palace, the remains of a 4th century baptistry were discovered.  While there isn’t a lot to see, finding such an important building from the days of early Christianity is a big deal.  The cultural importance of the baptistry in local life also can’t be overestimated – baptisms would only be performed during the Easter period by the bishop, which explains the size of the building and the need to accommodate a crowd.  The font was deep enough for a full body immersion, and you can see a pipe which would have brought a constant flowing supply of fresh water – an important part of the process, symbolising life.  During the earliest period of Christianity, adult baptism was customary, not just because they were converts, but because the ritual of baptism was seen as ridding one of all sins and therefore it was best to wait until late in adulthood to be cleansed – a risky process, one might think, given the possibility of sudden death, but nevertheless a common one.

A change in practices – namely, the increased baptism of babies, and parish priests being allowed to perform this sacrament – rid the church of the need to have these separate buildings, and they fell out of use.

View of the remains of the baptistry, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

A pipe supplying water to the old baptistry, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Model of the baptistry as it would have been in the 5th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Decorative element (probably for a book or a box), 6th-10th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Polycandelon (fragment), 5th/6th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Fragment of a vase marked “Severiani”, 4th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

Fragment of a decorated vase, 4th/5th century, Old Bishops’ Palace Museum, Grenoble, France

So In Summary

After having had a few generally disappointing days in Orange and Avignon, our visit to the elegant Old Bishops’ Palace was massively reassuring.  Here was a museum that was well thought out, nicely organised, with a collection that covered many aspects of Grenoble and Isère history in a clear, chronological manner – with modern displays and a clear affection for the eclectic range of objects.  It was a lovely museum and offered a great way to get to know the region.

Further Information

Entry to the museum is free.

There is a website which covers the Grenoble museums which has all the useful information you may need in English: www.musees.isere.fr

Unusually, there is also a little guidebook for the museum in English too – go Grenoble!

How To Get There

It is quite a schlep from the train station to the heart of town.  I recommend getting trams or buses.  Of course, I was there during a heatwave, so perhaps the walk wouldn’t have been so arduous at other times, but still, here is a link to the local transport site: https://www.tag.fr

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