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

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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: www.tag.fr

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