At the Last Supper, the Bible tells us, Christ announced to his disciples, “One of you will betray me.” According to a recent report in the International Journal of Obesity, he might have added, “And you will all grow fatter and fatter.”
The authors of the study, Brian Wansink and his brother, Craig Wansink, analyzed 52 depictions of the Last Supper—from a sixth-century mosaic to a 1996 photograph by Renee Cox in which the nude artist sits in for Christ—and concluded that the food portions became increasingly generous over time, with the main dish expanding by 69 percent, the bread portions by 23 percent, and the plates swelling in size by 66 percent. The report was picked up by the press around the world.
“I think people assume that increased serving sizes, or ‘portion distortion,’ is a recent phenomenon,” Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, told the Los Angeles Times. “But this research indicates that it’s a general trend for at least the last millennium.”
Art historians have a few bones to pick with both the study and its conclusions. “To me, it’s odd to choose the Last Supper as the archetypal meal, given that it has such a specific Christian context and isn’t necessarily about the act of eating food together,” says Jon Seydl, curator of European paintings and sculpture at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “The one thing that went unmentioned is that the change corresponds in some way with the rise of still life as an independent genre. If I were to investigate the supersizing phenomenon, I’d also look to the decorative arts and ask, ‘Did plates get bigger over time?'”
Rudolph Bell, professor of history at Rutgers University and author of How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians, agrees that one should look at the increasing importance of still life over the centuries. As artists took a greater interest in depicting food and culinary accoutrements, like serving dishes and utensils, “they were showing off their skills at still life, and when they put a hunk of bread or a plate with food on it in a painting, they put an amount that seemed realistic to them. And what seems realistic in the 18th century is going to be different from what feels realistic in the 13th century.”
The study’s authors “should be looking at the history of cuisine, not the history of painting,” says John Varriano, professor emeritus of art at Mount Holyoke College and author of Tastes and Temptations: Food and Art in Renaissance Italy. In moving from icon painting to narrative art, the story of the Last Supper simply becomes more complicated. “There’s just more stuff in Renaissance art, and the food is just one of them. And there are more different kinds of food in a picture from 1600 than in one from 1350. Look at Giotto and then look at Veronese, and there you’ve got it.”
Varriano adds that biblical texts provide very little detail about what was consumed at the Last Supper. “And that’s ideal for Renaissance artists. They love minimal descriptions, because then they can use their imaginations and basically do whatever they like.”
Just as painting became more sophisticated and filled with embellishments, he notes, so did menus and the overall culinary experience take on greater drama and complexity during the Renaissance. “There’s a parallel literature that just grows and grows in the 16th and 17th centuries, books of recipes and books of menus. You’ll see that what used to be a one-course meal has turned into a 30-course meal.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean people were eating more. “Cooks and people in the kitchen were preparing and serving food in a more artful manner.” During the Renaissance, that tendency reached an apex with artists preparing whole meals to look like works of art. “Andrea del Sarto,” Varriano notes, “re-created the dome of the Florence Baptistery out of marzipan.”
For their study, the Wansink brothers compared portion sizes in each painting with the average size of the heads in the work and found a marked trend—as the portions got bigger, so did the heads.
But Martin Kemp, professor emeritus of art history at Trinity College, Oxford, finds that methodology deeply flawed. “Over the centuries, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, artists increasingly moved from representing the infant Christ as a miniature man to making him look more like a normally proportioned baby,” he notes. “In the later images, when pictures became more naturalistic, the ratio of head to body size changes dramatically. If you applied their methods,” he says of the Wansinks, “you would decide that over the course of the centuries children’s heads got markedly larger.”
“As a method,” he concludes, “it’s as absurd as that.”
Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.