The story of Ananias and Sapphira is one episode in the rich description of the early Christian community in Jerusalem recounted in the book of Acts. In this description, we read that believers place their possessions at the disposal of the apostles, who distribute resources according to need. All members of the community enjoy divine favour as a result (Acts 4:32–37).
Yet a couple, Ananias and Sapphira, disrupt this idyllic picture. Following the sale of a property, Ananias, with his wife’s knowledge, intentionally withholds a portion of the proceeds, but comes to the apostles pretending that he is giving over the entire amount. With apparently no opportunity for repentance, both he and Sapphira lose their lives, their violent fate a warning against greed and deception, and an illustration of the powerful but confronting work of the Spirit.
It is a profoundly challenging story and, not surprisingly, is rarely represented. Nonetheless across a broad expanse of history, and in different viewing contexts, artists have illuminated the difficult textual passage in remarkable ways. A common thread is the relationship between the doomed pair and Peter, leader of the apostles, and in this episode a judge and executioner. It is also striking that Sapphira, as much or more than her husband, is often portrayed as a central figure of judgement and hence an object lesson. In addition to these human actors, there is the Holy Spirit, an implied presence guiding the action in visual as in textual terms.
The manipulation of space plays an important part in the artistic representation of these themes—themes that are expected to offer object lessons to viewers about the perennial struggle between generosity and avarice.
On the fourth-century Brescia casket the artist places an object, not a person, at the centre. The money bag, here a physical obstacle between Peter and Sapphira, symbolizes the greed and deceit that lie at the core of the story, and are spiritual obstacles for all human beings. Peter sits in judgement over Sapphira while her husband, already dead, is carried off. The vigour with which the four young men are shown bearing the dead weight of Ananias out of the scene emphasizes how the couple have lost their place in the community. That an identical fate will befall Sapphira is only implied, which enhances the drama.
The ninth-century Sacra Parallela’s separate treatment of the fates of both Ananias and Sapphira perhaps emphasizes for the reader the potential for repetition of sin. Certainly the miniature size and delicacy of the images, found directly alongside the text of Acts, facilitate very personal reflection on this obstacle, as suits a text compiled for moral instruction. Peter and John confront Sapphira together, representing the collective authority of the apostles and of the Spirit. Two small depictions of Sapphira illustrate her fate as though by animation, standing in supplication and then fallen in death. There is no husband, and no money bag, the narrative details stripped down to focus on Sapphira, and to expose her emotion and fate. As two men remove Sapphira’s dead body, our attention is further drawn to her choices (and ours).
By comparison, Raphael’s large cartoon treats not only the personal impact of greed, but the wider ramifications for the early Christian community. The artist deals with Sapphira subtly. As she stands almost unnoticed in the crowd, turned in on herself as she counts coins in the palm of her hand, she is oblivious to the chaos of Ananias’s death. Peter now stands at the centre of the scene. He gestures forward to curse Ananias, who falls dead before him, while the apostle Andrew identifies Sapphira forebodingly in the crowd on the right, thrusting his other finger into the air. While Sapphira’s impending demise enhances the drama of this visual narrative, Raphael uses the large figures of Ananias and a startled man in the foreground to command our intellectual and emotional engagement in three main themes: the authority of the apostles, the punishment of sin, and the disruption that greed causes to the community.
Commentators often suggest the Holy Spirit is the real protagonist in Acts. While the attractions and the dangers of wealth are readily depicted, portraying the invisible represents a challenge, and there are no tongues of flame in this narrative to allow a clear visual rendition of divine power. Instead it is the bold if disconcerting actions of the spirit-filled apostles—Andrew’s vivid gesture in Raphael, Peter’s imperious presence on the ivory—and the greed-possessed bodies of Ananias and Sapphira, that show the power of God to smite as well as to save.
Harley-McGowan, Felicity. 2011. ‘Death Is Swallowed Up in Victory: Scenes of Death in Early Christian Art and the Emergence of Crucifixion Iconography’, Cultural Studies Review, 17.1: 101–24
Shearman, John K. G. 1972. Raphael’s Cartoons in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, and the Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel (London: Phaidon)
Tkacz, Catherine Brown. 2002. The Key to the Brescia Casket: Typology and the Early Christian Imagination (Paris: University of Notre Dame Press)
Weitzmann, Kurt. 1979. The Miniatures of the ‘Sacra Parallela’: Parisinus Graecus 923 (Princeton: Princeton University Press)
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.