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.
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.