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.
5 But a man named Ananiʹas with his wife Sapphiʹra sold a piece of property, 2 and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananiʹas, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” 5 When Ananiʹas heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9 But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Hark, the feet of those that have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.