From The Times
March 24, 2010
Jesus Christ and Ronald McDonald may seem to have little in common. But both are presiding over the supersizing of their followers’ eating habits, according to researchers who found that the portion sizes in paintings of the Last Supper have piled up over the past 1,000 years.
American academics analysed 52 of the most famous depictions of the Last Supper and found that the appetites of the Apostles have become increasingly prodigious. The size of the main dish grew 69.2 per cent and bread portions by 23.1 per cent over the millennium, while the plates grew by 65.6 per cent, they found.
The findings suggest that today’s obesity crisis may have deep historical roots, according to the researchers. “I think people assume that increased serving sizes, or ‘portion distortion’, is a recent phenomenon,” said Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, New York, who led the study. “But this research indicates that it’s a general trend for at least the last millennium.”
From the austere repast laid on by the early 14th-century Tuscan artist Duccio, through Leonardo’s lively party of 1495, the supper became a feast in Titian’s depiction of 1544. When Tintoretto painted the Last Supper in 1592-94 the table was groaning with dishes.
Professor Wansink, with his brother Craig, a Presbyterian minister and Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Wesleyan College, examined dozens of artworks including modern depictions by Stanley Spencer and Salvador Dalí.
Using computer design software, they scanned the meals and calculated the portion size relative to the head size of the average apostle. They found a big upwards trend, in research published in the International Journal of Obesity.
The Bible, being more concerned with its religious import, does not dwell on the amount of food consumed at the Last Supper, and it was a “tertiary matter” for most artists, Professor Wansink said. “The ampleness of the food is coming from the mind of the artist, showing what he thought was reasonable and appropriate in the time and place he was living,” he told The Times.
Professor Wansink, whose book Mindless Eating studies how social and environmental forces affect how much we eat, argues that the increasingly meaty Christianity on display is an indication of improvements in agriculture.
“The last thousand years have witnessed dramatic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance and affordability of food,” he said. “We think that as art imitates life, these changes have been reflected in paintings of history’s most famous dinner.”
The New Testament mentions only bread and wine, but Professor Wansink discovered that fish was the most commonly depicted main course, featuring in 18 per cent of canvases. Considering the symbolism of the fish and Jesus’s injunction to his disciples to become “fishers of men”, this is perhaps unsurprising. Lamb was the main course in 14 per cent of the pictures and, more puzzling for a gathering of Jews on the eve of Passover, 7 per cent of the paintings featured pork.
Jeff Brunstrom, Reader in Behavioural Nutrition at the University of Bristol, described the research as “very interesting”. But he said: “The obesity epidemic is a relatively modern phenomenon and it’s really only in the past 40 to 50 years that you’ve seen big changes in body mass index (BMI).”
The researchers needed to show whether the larger portions had been making people fatter, he said. “If people were really eating 70 per cent more calories than they used to we would be rolling around,” said Dr Brunstrom. “Whether we have seen an increase in BMI historically is unclear.”
That will have to remain among the divine mysteries: the Wansink brothers did not assess whether Christ and his disciples themselves were getting bigger.