The undisputed highlight of the excavations – the mosaic – is 340 centimetres or just over 11 feet in diameter and almost 900 years old.
Unfortunately, a broad swathe of the central section has been destroyed. Only the edge sections between two bands of lettering have survived. They tell the biblical story of the first fratricide.
On the left is Cain the farmer with a sheaf of grain, and above him, part of the figure of Abel, the shepherd. But God accepted Abel's animal sacrifice and rejected Cain's offering of crops, and so we see jealous Cain on the right of the mosaic, killing his brother. The two figures are skilfully fitted into the edge section: Cain with his angrily jutting chin, and Abel slumping forward in an attitude of submission.
The outer band of lettering is easily reconstructed. It reads:
MVNERA ABEL EXTENDIT DEVS [ACCIPIT ILLA]
HIC IRATVS CHAIN OC[CIDIT FRATREM IN ARGO]
Abel presents his offerings, God accepts them. Cain, enraged by this, kills his brother in the field.
The inner band of lettering has largely been destroyed, and the mosaic’s central area is completely missing. The few legible words on the left-hand side...
... LOCVS VOCI N[ost]RE IN [C]ELO – "a place for our voice in heaven" ...
... aren’t a description of the main subject, now lost. They are words from the offertory prayer said during evening mass at the beginning of the two-day Feast of St. Lawrence on the ninth and tenth of August: "Our prayer is pure, therefore we beg that our voice be heard in heaven".
Shortly after its discovery, the mosaic was again buried beneath 120 centimetres or four feet of soil, up to the current floor level. But back when the Romanesque nave was newly built, another altar dedicated to Saint Lawrence stood diagonally above the mosaic.
The sacrifice of Abel and the offertory prayer from the Mass of St Lawrence form a striking combination. In the Middle Ages, the monastic theologian Rupert von Deutz was alone in making the connection. He describes the Roman martyr Laurentius – Lawrence – who was roasted to death on a gridiron, as a second Abel. He even identifies an escalation: Abel was killed because of a burnt offering, but Laurentius died as a burnt offering.
If the combination of imagery and text on the mosaic really was inspired by Rupert von Deutz, that means it was created in the late 1120s. At the time, Schuttern was governed by the bishop Saint Otto of Bamberg, who had introduced the Hirsau Reforms. Another of the religious houses under Bamberg’s control served as a model: Prüfening Monastery in Regensburg, where Rupert's ideas were enthusiastically discussed and were also represented in an image.
According to this interpretation, the mosaic, created in 1128 or ‘29, was covered up after just 25 years or so, when the new Romanesque nave was built from 1155 onwards. Karl List, who led the dig, proposed a much earlier date for the mosaic of around 1016, during the reign of Emperor Henry the Second. The concept developers at our monastery museum date it to before 1120, based on the shapes of the letters and the architectural history of the Romanesque church as established by them.
Regardless of the exact year it was created, the Schuttern mosaic is the oldest surviving figural mosaic in the German-speaking world and, even compared to the Romanesque mosaics in France and Italy, one of the most beautiful in all of Europe.
All depictions: © Historischer Verein Schuttern 603 e.V. / Gemeinde Friesenheim