The former abbey church of Schuttern (which serves as the present-day parish church) has the tallest tower in the Ortenau region – it’s 75 metres or 246 feet high. It’s also the second tallest tower in the archdiocese of Freiburg – surpassed only by Freiburg Cathedral.
A glance at this impressive tower is enough to give you a sense of how large and beautiful Schuttern Abbey must once have been. The tower’s sculptural decoration tells the story of the founding of the monastery – which is anything but straightforward!
Let’s start by looking at the three figures adorning the portal.
At the top is the Virgin Mary with Child. The coat of arms behind them features a unicorn – which is both a Marian symbol and the heraldic animal of Abbot Placidus Hinderer, who built the tower in 1722.
Historically, the church was always dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which is why the Assumption of Mary on the 15th of August is the highest church festival celebrated in Schuttern.
The figure on the left, below Mary, is perhaps the most important, but also the most mysterious. This is Offo, the abbey’s legendary founder, an Anglo-Saxon king who is said to have set forth on a missionary journey in the early 7th century. The abbey chronicle states that he founded Schuttern monastery in 603, and that it was named "Offoniswilare" – Offo’s hamlet – after him.
Someone called Offo, who founded a place called Offenweiler – sounds convincing! Perhaps this Offo was a Hiberno-Scottish monk from Britain. Monastic tradition then turned this founder into a king and celebrated his feast day every year by holding religious services and feeding the poor. Today, he is commemorated in Schuttern by the town crest, the Offohalle and a road called Offostrasse. The local restaurant Gasthaus Adler serves an Offo sausage, and a sparkling wine named after Offo is made in Offenburg. And every year on the 14th of January, the village celebrates Offo Day.
Whether someone called Offo was involved or not – from the 7th century onwards, there was probably a hermitage here, or a religious community of devout men. The first confirmed record mentioning the monastery dates to around 730, when St. Pirmin passed through the Ortenau region and introduced the Benedictine rule in Schuttern. Hence the presence of two monks, Pirmin and Benedict, at the very top of the tower.
A list compiled in 817 mentions Offoniswilare as one of the Frankish Empire’s most powerful religious houses. Almost exactly two centuries later, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry the Second described the monastery as impoverished, and summarily handed it over to his favourite bishopric of Bamberg, which was newly founded at the time. The monks campaigned in vain against their venerable imperial abbey of Schuttern becoming a proprietary foundation owned by the bishop of Bamberg. To appease them, Henry granted the village of Heiligenzell and seven farms to the abbey in 1016. A counterfeit deed of donation subsequently added several more properties. And so tradition turned the emperor into a generous benefactor who saved the abbey from ruin. The statue on the right of the portal accordingly presents Henry as the second founder, and as a counterpart to the first royal founder, Offo.
Around this time, the abbey stopped calling itself after its legendary founder, Offo, and instead adopted the name of the local river: "Scutera" or "Scutura" – "Schuttern".