The Last Supper: I’d like that Supersized

Art professors weigh in on study of increased food portions in Last Supper paintings

Apr. 9, 2010 By Jenna Bartlo

Who knew the Last Supper would be pulled into the oft-joked-about, but rather serious question of supersized food portions and obesity? A recent study revealing food portions have increased by 69 percent in depictions of the Last Supper over the past 1,000 years has done just that. Apparently, the disciples and Jesus may have enjoyed a much larger meal — if they had only waited for Leonardo da Vinci’s painting completed in 1498 or more so Titian’s depiction in 1544, which seems to be a royal feast.

The study spotlights the physical size of the food; however, art history has a significant impact on the depiction of the food, which appears not to be addressed from the research, according to Biola art professors.

Conducted by brothers Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University and director of the school’s Food and Brand Lab, and Craig Wansink, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College and a Presbyterian pastor, the study shows that main courses grew by 69 percent, plates grew by 66 percent and bread grew by 23 percent within 52 Last Supper paintings. The study, published in “The International Journal of Obesity,” used computer technology to compare how much food was in front of the disciples in the paintings through calculating the sizes of the disciples’ heads, plates, meals and bread size.

“The last thousand years have witnessed dramatic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance and affordability of food,” Brian told The Guardian. “We think that as art imitates life, these changes have been reflected in paintings of history’s most famous dinner.”

Jonathan Anderson, an assistant professor of art at Biola, explained that Western Europe had massive economic success and expansion in the 16th century, which the study highlights as the century of largest expansion of food portion-sizes in the paintings. 

“So, it seems to me that we can read into these images as indicating something about the ways the communities in question consumed and valued food,” said Anderson. Furthermore, he mentioned there were numerous paintings in the 16th century devoted to the subject of Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha — painted by some of the same artists whose Last Supper images were looked at for the study — in which food takes prominence.

“In each of these paintings, the preparation of lots of food is in the foreground and then — given the apparent meaning of Jesus words to Martha in Luke 10:38-42 — deeply called into question,” he said. 

Illustrating the current tendency for people to eat larger portions on bigger plates, the findings show the trend has gradually developed over the millennium leading to increased obesity.

 “I think people assume that increased serving sizes, or ‘portion distortion’, is a recent phenomenon,” Brian told The Times Online. “But this research indicates that it’s a general trend for at least the last millennium.”

However, a factor that must be looked at in this study is how different cultures and time periods related food specifically to the celebration of the Eucharist, a variable seemingly missing in the study, though briefly mentioned at the end of the study, said Anderson.

“Because they’ve chosen Last Supper images specifically, bound up in those images is not simply a historical record of food portion-sizes, but also the degree to which a given community understood the Eucharist as a ‘feast’,” said Anderson. “This is a very particular meal being depicted.”

This is a significant variable absent in the study since different communities related food to this celebration differently. Craig did say  — in an interview with The New York Times — that he believes food took on increasing prominence.

“We can say that plates and the amounts grow in the paintings,” he said. “Does that mean in terms of the actual culture and time that food itself increased? I don’t think we have the social and historical data to back that up. But we do have the data to show that food took on increasing prominence.”

Even if food did not actually increase in size, the average person grew during the study’s 1,000 year time period, which would even have an impact on this conversation, said Jonathan Puls, associate professor of art history and painting at Biola.   

“I am about a foot taller than the typical Medieval European male, so I consume more food, so there may be any number of ‘apples to oranges’ comparisons in a study like this,” said Puls. 

He also indicated the proportionate size of the food may not mean more food, but just that the food is taking up more of the canvas.

“If we also think about the development of linear perspective — which happened in the middle of their test sample — and put it together with the fact that the table is almost always in the foreground of such paintings, the increase in size might be attributable to the needs of foreshortening,” he said.

Anderson and Puls both find the study interesting even if the study could have used a larger helping of art history.

“I just want us to not lose sight of the fact that Last Supper paintings were intended for very specific purposes, and thus they might say as much about these communities’ theology of food than their consumption of it per se – though, of course, the two are interrelated,” said Anderson.

Written by Jenna Bartlo, Media Relations Coordinator. Jenna can be reached at (562) 777-4061 or through email at jenna.l.bartlo@biola.edu.

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