Acts of the Apostles 5:1–11
The Death of Ananias and Sapphira
The Human Face of Sin
Commentary by Felicity Harley-McGowan
The Sacra Parallela gives the biblical story of Ananias and Sapphira a new frame. This very large and richly illustrated ninth-century codex is a compilation of biblical and patristic texts that have a collective bearing on theological, moral, and social subjects of importance. Individually, the various texts touch on the relationship of God and humankind, the virtues and vices of human nature, religious authority, and the proper conduct of Christians towards fellow humans.
The fates of Ananias and Sapphira are here illustrated separately. In the margin of one page, Sapphira appears before Peter and John, who in the first half of Acts are active leaders in the Jerusalem community. Seated on a cushioned chair to face the viewer directly, they turn to judge Sapphira, standing alongside them. Large gold-leaf halos (bordered in a black line punctuated with tiny white dots) emphasize their divine authority: as the text asserts, the Holy Spirit is present in the apostles, and so in lying to them, Sapphira attempts to deceive the Spirit (Acts 5:9).
Opposite this single depiction of the two apostles, two smaller representations of Sapphira are intended to be read in quick succession. In the first, she stands anxiously beside them, her veiled head inclined towards them, her shoulders drawn upwards, arms held close to her chest, and hands open, perhaps in supplication. In the second, she falls dead before them, her tiny red feet askew but her body folded into a position reminiscent of prostration in prayer. In a third scene, placed below the apostles, Sapphira’s bound corpse is transported away to burial.
Thus with great economy of detail, working alongside the text, the artist draws out both the tragic finality of the judgement upon Sapphira, and the very human face of sin.
Holiness and Horror
Commentary by Felicity Harley-McGowan
This dynamic and monumental painting places Ananias and Sapphira among their community in Jerusalem (see Acts 4). The horizontal scene, filled with colour and vigorous movement, is divided into two parts at the centre of which, raised on a stepped platform, stand the apostles—their divine authority signalled in their fine gold halos. On the left, some distribute money to the needy; on the right, some receive goods.
Created by Raphael and his assistants, this full-scale design was one in a series of ten sumptuous tapestries commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 to hang on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Executed when embezzlement of funds from the church was a serious problem, they presented different moments in Acts featuring Peter and Paul, intended to make a broad statement about the Church’s authority through depiction of these founders of the Christian church and martyrs in Rome.
Peter is positioned in the centre, at the top step of the platform, gesturing and looking down to Ananias. No other movement obscures our view of this pivotal apostle, the ‘rock’ on whom the church was built. Our eye is drawn directly up to Peter by two large male figures sprawled in the foreground. On the right, Ananias collapses dead, his legs splayed before him, head falling backwards, eyes closed, one arm buckling under his weight. On the left, a man recoils backwards onto one knee in surprised horror, his head bolt upright, eyes and mouth wide open, and arms outstretched. At the far right, Sapphira, oblivious to the events taking place, counts coins in her hand.
Another apostle, possibly Andrew, directs our attention to her presence with a gesture and threatening glance, while he points heavenward with his left hand as if to indicate the larger power at work in this scene: the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit is at work, obliviousness can only be temporary.
Into the Void
Commentary by Felicity Harley-McGowan
A rare depiction of Ananias and Sapphira from the early Christian period survives on an ivory casket, exquisitely carved with a variety of stories from the Old and New Testaments. Located at the centre of the back panel, Peter is seated as judge, leaning forward in his chair to accuse Sapphira, who stands cautiously before him. Behind her, the dead Ananias is being removed for burial. Placed between them on the ground is a fat money bag, tied at the neck, above which the artist has carved a clear, open space.
The only details to intrude into this intentional void are gestures: the right hand of Peter, pointing purposefully at Sapphira, and the right hand of the accused, hovering hesitantly above the bag. This depiction cleverly conveys the intensity of Peter questioning Ananias and then Sapphira in the literary narrative, and highlights an important dimension of the couple’s story: while Peter judges Sapphira for the same crime as her husband had committed, her verdict carries a stronger tone of judgement, and the curse-like nature of his words is more explicit in the text (Acts 5:9).
This is highlighted here through Ananias’s being carried by four young men, representatives of the betrayed community, sensitively carved such that the gravity of their movement, and of the dead-weight of Ananias, is palpable. So too is Ananias’s desperation. His eyes are closed as he turns back to face Sapphira, his right arm stretched upwards as though, in the very moment of death, he gestured vigorously to warn his wife. In this way the spectacle of Ananias’s body is used to enhance the visual drama, and it is Sapphira’s impending death that emerges to dominate the scene.
Unknown artist [Constantinople?] :
Death of Ananias and Sapphira, from Sacra Parallela by John of Damascus, 9th century , Illumination on parchment
The Death of Ananias (cartoon for the Sistine Chapel), 1515–16 , Bodycolour on paper mounted onto canvas
Unknown artist, Italian school :
Reliquary of Brescia (Brescia Casket or Lipsanoteca), back view, 4th century , Ivory
The Invisible Hand
Comparative commentary by Felicity Harley-McGowan
The story of Ananias and Sapphira is one episode in the rich description of the early Christian community in Jerusalem recounted in the book of Acts. In this description, we read that believers place their possessions at the disposal of the apostles, who distribute resources according to need. All members of the community enjoy divine favour as a result (Acts 4:32–37).
Yet a couple, Ananias and Sapphira, disrupt this idyllic picture. Following the sale of a property, Ananias, with his wife’s knowledge, intentionally withholds a portion of the proceeds, but comes to the apostles pretending that he is giving over the entire amount. With apparently no opportunity for repentance, both he and Sapphira lose their lives, their violent fate a warning against greed and deception, and an illustration of the powerful but confronting work of the Spirit.
It is a profoundly challenging story and, not surprisingly, is rarely represented. Nonetheless across a broad expanse of history, and in different viewing contexts, artists have illuminated the difficult textual passage in remarkable ways. A common thread is the relationship between the doomed pair and Peter, leader of the apostles, and in this episode a judge and executioner. It is also striking that Sapphira, as much or more than her husband, is often portrayed as a central figure of judgement and hence an object lesson. In addition to these human actors, there is the Holy Spirit, an implied presence guiding the action in visual as in textual terms.
The manipulation of space plays an important part in the artistic representation of these themes—themes that are expected to offer object lessons to viewers about the perennial struggle between generosity and avarice.
On the fourth-century Brescia casket the artist places an object, not a person, at the centre. The money bag, here a physical obstacle between Peter and Sapphira, symbolizes the greed and deceit that lie at the core of the story, and are spiritual obstacles for all human beings. Peter sits in judgement over Sapphira while her husband, already dead, is carried off. The vigour with which the four young men are shown bearing the dead weight of Ananias out of the scene emphasizes how the couple have lost their place in the community. That an identical fate will befall Sapphira is only implied, which enhances the drama.
The ninth-century Sacra Parallela’s separate treatment of the fates of both Ananias and Sapphira perhaps emphasizes for the reader the potential for repetition of sin. Certainly the miniature size and delicacy of the images, found directly alongside the text of Acts, facilitate very personal reflection on this obstacle, as suits a text compiled for moral instruction. Peter and John confront Sapphira together, representing the collective authority of the apostles and of the Spirit. Two small depictions of Sapphira illustrate her fate as though by animation, standing in supplication and then fallen in death. There is no husband, and no money bag, the narrative details stripped down to focus on Sapphira, and to expose her emotion and fate. As two men remove Sapphira’s dead body, our attention is further drawn to her choices (and ours).
By comparison, Raphael’s large cartoon treats not only the personal impact of greed, but the wider ramifications for the early Christian community. The artist deals with Sapphira subtly. As she stands almost unnoticed in the crowd, turned in on herself as she counts coins in the palm of her hand, she is oblivious to the chaos of Ananias’s death. Peter now stands at the centre of the scene. He gestures forward to curse Ananias, who falls dead before him, while the apostle Andrew identifies Sapphira forebodingly in the crowd on the right, thrusting his other finger into the air. While Sapphira’s impending demise enhances the drama of this visual narrative, Raphael uses the large figures of Ananias and a startled man in the foreground to command our intellectual and emotional engagement in three main themes: the authority of the apostles, the punishment of sin, and the disruption that greed causes to the community.
Commentators often suggest the Holy Spirit is the real protagonist in Acts. While the attractions and the dangers of wealth are readily depicted, portraying the invisible represents a challenge, and there are no tongues of flame in this narrative to allow a clear visual rendition of divine power. Instead it is the bold if disconcerting actions of the spirit-filled apostles—Andrew’s vivid gesture in Raphael, Peter’s imperious presence on the ivory—and the greed-possessed bodies of Ananias and Sapphira, that show the power of God to smite as well as to save.
Harley-McGowan, Felicity. 2011. ‘Death Is Swallowed Up in Victory: Scenes of Death in Early Christian Art and the Emergence of Crucifixion Iconography’, Cultural Studies Review, 17.1: 101–24
Shearman, John K. G. 1972. Raphael’s Cartoons in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, and the Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel (London: Phaidon)
Tkacz, Catherine Brown. 2002. The Key to the Brescia Casket: Typology and the Early Christian Imagination (Paris: University of Notre Dame Press)
Weitzmann, Kurt. 1979. The Miniatures of the ‘Sacra Parallela’: Parisinus Graecus 923 (Princeton: Princeton University Press)