Successive generations of artists depicting the Last Supper of Jesus and his Apostles progressively supersized the meal, according to a study published in the April issue of the International Journal of Obesity.
The researchers — Brian Wansink, a food behavior scientist at Cornell University, and his brother, Craig Wansink, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College — did a computer analysis of paintings of the Last Supper composed from around 1000 A.D. to 2000 A.D. (yes, they included Leonardo da Vinci's famous one).
Focusing on the size of the food relative to the head sizes of the people at the table, they concluded that, as the centuries passed, the painters increasingly loaded down the table with more and more food. In fact, the size of the entrée grew a whopping 69 percent between the first paintings and the latest, while the size of the bread grew 23 percent. The plates grew almost 66 percent, no doubt to contain the larger portions.
The Bible doesn't list the full menu, specifically mentioning only bread and wine, so artists through the ages have felt free to design their own. While nearly half of the depictions have no clearly identifiable main course, according to the study, of those that do, seafood (fish or eel) and lamb are the most prevalent. That's not surprising considering that several of the Apostles were fishermen, and that lamb is a traditional component of Passover meals.
Anyway, the authors conclude that the growth in the size of the food reflects Western society's evolving view of abundance in a sort of “art imitates life” way. It's kind of like the way our perspective of what constitutes a “portion” has grown, except that the Last Supper was supersized over a millennium while the typical QSR combo meal achieved the same inflationary feat in less than two decades.