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.
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.