Christian Donlan is a writer and the author of The Unmapped Mind: A Memoir of Neurology, Multiple Sclerosis and Learning How to Live. Here, he tells us about his discovery of the inextricable connection between art and life lived...

The Prado in Madrid is free to all visitors between the hours of six and eight every evening. This means that people can drop in on their way home from work. When I visited the Prado a few weeks back, eager to see Las Meninas, by Velázquez, in real life after years of reading about it in books and studying it in reproduction, I went there straight from the plane. I arrived around seven and I didn't even have to queue.

It works a quiet magic, this dependable window of freeness, this clockwork bargain that comes around every evening as the shops start to shut. Las Meninas is, amongst other things, a portrait of people doing their jobs. It is filled with the family of King Philip IV of Spain, but also his courtiers and servants: his employees. And when I first stared at it on the far wall of room 12, I was surrounded, or so it felt, by people who had just come from doing their own jobs. Ties loosened on some, maybe a barista apron half hidden by a coat on another. The jingle of lock-up keys, the happy weariness of another day down.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656.

The Prado is a world gallery in every sense - it is filled with great works by Velázquez, by Goya, by Rubens - I don't really get Rubens - and Raphael. But it is also, more than any other gallery I can think of, a local gallery. It feels intimately connected to the life of Madrid, to the day-to-day rituals of the city, and I think this quirk of opening hours has a lot to do with that.

And it has made me think. Why do we separate art from life so much? Maybe it's just me. I take time out to go to a gallery and when I emerge from the creaking silence and the looming of the great works, I feel like I am returning to the world after an absence. But isn't art all about life? Why that feeling of being removed from the world for an hour or two? Why the barriers, in my mind at least?

Why do we separate art from life so much?

It is not just art. Almost five years ago I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease in which the body's immune system starts to attack the coating on nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Multiple sclerosis is incurable and degenerative, and like a lot of people, I imagine, who have been given such a serious diagnosis I wondered at first if my life might be pretty much over.

Time has passed, though, and I have learned a lot. At the forefront of the things I have learned is this: a chronic illness is not the end of life. It is the stuff of life. It is vital, human stuff, often vivid stuff. It is a strain of life that contains things that matter, and experiences that have value.

It is embarrassing that I had to learn this, to be honest. Just as it's a bit weird that I had to go to the Prado in the company of people finishing a shift at Starbucks or an accountancy firm to see how life and art can flow together.

And it's why I was so excited to learn about Paintings in Hospitals. A year or so after I was diagnosed with MS, I went to hospital for a week to have a series of infusions that might reset a vital part of my immune system and make it behave a little better. Looking back it was that week as an inpatient that made me realise that my life was not over, that there was a value in the things I was experiencing. One of the things nobody really talks about regarding illness is the way it forces you to think about things that you otherwise might not. And while this is often unpleasant, this questioning sensibility can stick. When I got out of hospital, I spent a few weeks resting at home. Theoretically I was avoiding opportunistic infections, but in reality, I was re-engaging with life with an enthusiasm that surprised me. I sat up all day reading cookbooks, travel books and books on art. Everything seemed so vivid to me. The world beckoned in every direction.

Sir Frederic G. Kenyon (right), with Sir J. G. Mann and several heads of the Junta Central del Tesoro Artístico at the Colegio del Patriarca, Valencia, in 1937

Las Meninas at the Colegio del Patriarca, Valencia, in 1937. Sir Frederic G. Kenyon (right), with Sir J. G. Mann and several heads of the Junta Central del Tesoro Artístico.

Amongst the books I read was the book that would eventually lead me to the Prado: Laura Cumming's mesmerising look at the work of Velázquez, The Vanishing Man. One of Cumming's most moving insights is that paintings are mortal objects. They are shipped around the world, often stored badly, sometimes damaged. During a fire in Madrid, Las Meninas was once pushed out of a window to save it from the flames.

It is haunting to go to a gallery and think of the lives of these paintings, all of them converging in one spot for this brief time. And it wonderful to think that some of these paintings, some of these lives, have spent time in hospitals, watching over the beds and the corridors, bringing the light of life to the wards.

Find out more about how patients and carers can benefit from working with Paintings in Hospitals...

Celebrating 60 years of Paintings in Hospitals in 2019

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Christian Donlan was born in Los Angeles and lives in Brighton with his family. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2014 and is the author of The Unmapped Mind: A Memoir of Neurology, Multiple Sclerosis and Learning How to Live, which is published by Penguin.