The Death of Ananias (cartoon for the Sistine Chapel) by Raphael

Raphael

The Death of Ananias (cartoon for the Sistine Chapel), 1515–16, Bodycolour on paper mounted onto canvas, 340 x 530 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London; On loan from Her Majesty the Queen, ROYAL LOANS.5, Victoria and Albert Museum, London / Bridgeman Images

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Holiness and Horror

Individual Commentary
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.