Super-Size Me, Jesus: Last Suppers in Paintings Have Gotten Bigger

By Smriti Rao | March 23, 2010 10:21 am

The_Last_Supper_by_Vicente_Juan_MacipTo chart the rise in obesity over the last 1,000 years, look no further than artists’ depictions of the Last Supper.

Researchers from Cornell University have found that as people began consuming more food over the centuries, more items have been added to the menu at the Last Supper. While the Bible says that Jesus and his disciples ate bread and drank wine, paintings of the meal over the last 1,000 years have varied wildly and have featured fruits, fish, and even a head of lamb in one case.

And painters haven’t just added food items over the years; they’ve also increased the sizes of the plates and loaves of bread. Researchers say this points to a growing problem with portion size, which has contributed to the current obesity epidemic.

The researchers arrived at their conclusions by studying 52 famous paintings depicting the Last Supper in the 2000 book Last Supper from Phaidon Press. The book includes works by such masters as El Greco, Leonardo da Vinci, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Peter Paul Rubens.

They then used computer-aided technology to analyze the size of the main meals, bread, and the plates relative to the average size of the disciples’ heads. Reuters reports on the results:

The study found that, over the past 1,000 years, the size of the main meal has progressively grown 69 percent; plate size has increased 66 percent and bread size by about 23 percent.

The study was published in the International Journey of Obesity. Lead researcher Brian Wansink told The Guardian that the heftier portions shown in the paintings in more recent centuries are congruent with the increased availability of food:

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

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Image: Wikimedia

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Food, Nutrition, & More Food
  • Ari

    The article under the link has nothing to do with paintings of the last supper and Dr. Wansink belongs to Cornell’s department of applied economics and management. He has no degrees in either medical science or art history.

    Historical artwork is not the same as candid photographs. It’s not an objective depiction of reality. A medieval illumination of of the last supper, drawn in a church missal, would clear the table of everything but the bread and wine because those items have symbolic importance in a Christian mass. A later painting, meant for a rich merchant’s house, would emphasize a greater variety of foods in lavish detail because it was meant to remind viewer’s of its owner’s wealth. These pictures existed in totally different contexts.

    Accounting books detailing the food purchases of well-off households survive from the late Middle Ages onwards (but mostly not in languages that a management professor can read). These documents would be a much more accurate source of information on historical portion sizes. However, they probably would not reflect the professor’s quasi-religious belief that eating food is an immoral act.

  • martin kemp

    Using this absurdly a-historical method we could argue as follows:
    over the centuries from the Middle Ages artists increasingly moved from representing the infant Christ as a miniature man to making him look more like a normally proportioned baby. This proves that over the centuries babies heads greatly increased in size relative to their bodies – presumably as the result of increased portion size.


    Jesus is alive!

  • jainy paul

    Very powerful picture …

  • Rob

    I don’t disagree with the conclusions of the article, but I think the artist who painted a lamb’s head on the table might have been using it as a symbol…

  • Joel

    I can see how modern idea’s of food portions can change and show in our art. However I don’t think the last supper can cause an increase in portions, more like the idea of more food being available is what makes it show in our art. I agree.

  • aida kamil

    whos the artist ?


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