Death of Ananias and Sapphira from Sacra Parallela by John of Damascus, Unknown, Constantinople

Unknown artist [Constantinople?]

Death of Ananias and Sapphira from Sacra Parallela by John of Damascus, 9th century, Illumination on parchment, 36.3 x 26.5 cm, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, MS Grec 923, fol. 314r and 314v, Bibliothèque Nationale de France ark: / 12148 / btv1b525013124

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The Human Face of Sin

Individual Commentary
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.