Reliquary of Brescia (Brescia Casket), back view by Unknown, Italian School

Unknown, Italian School

Reliquary of Brescia (Brescia Casket), back view, 4th century, Ivory, 22 x 32 x 25 cm, Museo Civico Cristiano, Brescia, Italy, © Luisa Ricciarini / Leemage / Bridgeman Images

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Into the Void

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.