ZEIT: Mr. Triegel, you are an artist of surprises. First you become known as the atheist who was allowed to paint the Pope, and now you are suddenly not an atheist anymore. What happened?
Michael Triegel: I struggled with it for years – with the search for faith. Now I have found it. I was baptised in the Easter vigil at the Dresdner Hofkirche.
ZEIT: You often referred to yourself as a poor heathen child who so much wanted to believe, but was unable to.
Triegel: For a long time that was true. I sensed that it had to be good not have control over everything yourself, not to decide everything yourself. I wanted there to be something beyond myself. That is why I started to draw Biblical topics. That is also why I was very happy to be allowed to make a portrait of Pope Benedict. There was a great longing behind that.
ZEIT: What blocked your faith for so long?
Triegel: Perhaps my rationality, but I was also waiting for a spectacular epiphany.
ZEIT: You were thinking of a movie-like conversion?
Triegel: Yes, absolutely. I know these stories from the Bible: Saul falls from his horse, is blinded and hears a voice. A few years ago I wanted to enforce such a enotive moment. At Easter I visited St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, hoping that the setting would overwhelm me. But that didn’t happen.
ZEIT: What has now changed?
Triegel: It is somewhat banal, but the Jesuit priest of the Catholic student community here in Leipzig asked me if I wanted to take part in Spiritual Exercises. I immediately said yes. The plans was to study and meditate on selected texts from the Bible for thirty days. That grabbed me. At the risk of sounding pathetic now: I found that the faith rushed from my head to my heart. That was also an epiphany, but not as I had expected. In december I then decided that I was ready to be baptised.
ZEIT: And from then on you were certain?
Triegel: In February it become once again clear to me that I had been searching for only the brilliant for far too long. I was able to attend the creation of new cardinals in Rome. Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the former bishop of Regensburg, had invited me. We know each other because he once asked me to paint the Pope. At the front of St. Peter’s Basilica Pope Francis was preaching, I was seated in the second row, right behind the new cardinals, and underneath Michelangelo’s dome. Unexpectedly Benedict XVI also entered the Church. Really a perfect moment. It was nevertheless clear to me that I was not looking for all that. The artist in my was moved, but not the believer. You know, I was also concerned with mostly practical issues: when do I kneel, when do I stand up again? Am I behaving properly?
ZEIT: But you can practice that.
Triegel: I have. To see how a service in Rome transpires, I had before visited a small Church. There were only a few people in the pews, perhaps only eight or nine. The priest at the altar hesitatingly searched for the right page in the Missal, and when he finally found it, he read from it in bad broken Italian. It was all so touching that it comforted me. That was the Church I was looking for: not perfect, but real.
ZEIT: But many Catholic dignitaries would have been happy about your Baptism, right?
Triegel: Certainly. You won’t believe how often I have been asked in recent years, if I was going to be let myself be baptised. In higher Catholic circles there must almost have been telephone calls asking if Triegel is still not among them? It was well known that I longed for a faith. But I also did not want that my Baptism be shouted from the rooftops, that in the end someone would openly announce: we finally have him now.
ZEIT: Your Baptism was then without much fanfare. What was the moment like for you?
Triegel: It was a magnificent moment. The Easter vigil is wonderfully dramatic. First the Church is completely dark, then the priest enters with the paschal candle. What blew me away, like Paul, was the Communion. For a short moment I didn’t know where I was.
ZEIT: Why did you actually choose the Catholic Church?
Triegel: I am looking for the secret, a truth beyond what we can put into words. Additionaly, in Catholicism the sensuality of the image plays an important role. I am after all a painter. It seems to me that the Catholic Church appeals more to visual artist, the evangelical more to musicians. Just think – the Catholics have the greatest painters, like Rafael, the Protestants the greatest musicians: Bach.
ZEIT: Did Pope Benedict contribute to you becoming a Christian?
Triegel: Indirectly, and not because I painted him. That would have been too crude. But Benedict’s writings were important, his theory that faith and reason need not contradict one another. That was the sticking point for me. I needed priests whou would tell me, “the doubts that you have, we Catholics know them too.” I am full of doubts.
ZEIT: Is that still the case?
Triegel: The doubts have become less, but they are still there. But that is also fine. The parishes fort which I painted in the past, wanted my works exactly because of the longings I brought to the canvas. Because I asked questions that others might also have. You know, after the Enlightenment Heaven was emptied, everything that was unexplainable and wonderful banished from the world. But reason alone is not sufficient. We have seen that in the 20th century. That was the time of false prophets, of pseudo-religious ideologies. People still have an expectation of salvation.
ZEIT: Do you think that your atheism was for many your appeal as an artist?
Triegel: That may be, but I don’t find it interesting. In the art world unique characteristics are the highest attainable. Reporters quickly lost themselves in the slogan: Atheist paints Pope. I was eventually sick of that. Now I’m just the East-German artist entering the Church. Also not really commonplace. The people in the east will be turned off by what I’m doing. Christian motivation is so absent here, that it is almost considered to be cool. In the east iso much is forgotten that the Church can start from scratch. I see that pragmatically – it is easier to draw on an empty sheet.
ZEIT: Why do you actually always paint Christian themes?
Triegel: They have always fascinated me. When I was 13 years old my parents gave me two art books: one about Dürer and one about Rubens. In their images I saw a counter proposal to the world which I experienced in the 1970s and 1980s in the GDR. There was nothing much sublime there, as one was expected to hold their mouths.
ZEIT: If you were to paint a self portrait now, does the Christian Triegel look any different from the atheist?
Triegel: Probably not, but it would be worth a try. I haven’t painted myself yet since my Baptism, but I have not become a completely different person. I still ask myself the same questions as two years ago, but the answers are somewhat changing.
ZEIT: Would you be interested in painting Pope Francis?
Triegel: Certainly. He is impressive as a person, and from a purely artistic point of view, I find his physiognomy interesting. But – and this is not to sound disrespectful – as a person Benedict has touched me more.
ZEIT: Has it gotten around to him in the Vatican that you are now a Christian?
Triegel: Yes. Inasmuch that I sent Pope Benedict a Christmas card, because I wanted to inform him of my upcoming Baptism. Shortly afterwards I received a letter from him in response. He gave me his blessing.