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Lessons From the Last Supper?

March 31, 2010

You’ve probably heard of the Ig-Nobel awards.  Each October they are given to honor research studies that make us wonder why we have to work for a living while people are getting grants to figure out things like why woodpeckers don’t get headaches and the effect of country music on suicide (yes, it does make you want to kill yourself). 

Someone also managed to determine that rats are not able to in all cases tell the difference between Japanese and Dutch when spoken backwards.  Sometimes they can and sometimes they can’t.  Now you know.

I came across a study I think has a shot at this year’s list.

There is a professor at Cornell University who is also director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.  His brother is a professor of religious studies at a college in Virginia.

They decided to collaborate on some truly useful research which would establish a nexus between food and religion.  They found out that the portion size of the food, as well as the size of the plates, has increased over the years in paintings of the Last Supper.

What? you say.  I’d been wondering about that.

It’s really scientific.  They measured the size of the disciples’ heads as well as the size of the plates and the different fishes and loaves, and with some fancy math and complicated looking charts, they drew their conclusions.  The plate size over the years (from 1000 to 2000) has increased by 66% and serving sizes have increased accordingly. 

They think that this might have something to do with the fact that people are getting fatter all the time.

The findings are yet to be published in a periodical ominously called The Journal of Obesity, but you can get the advance scoop here:

If you’re like me, you are wondering about the implications for the human race.

But on a more limited level, I started thinking about Last Supper paintings.  It seems that ever since Dan Brown, Last Supper paintings have been telling us a lot more than we might have originally imagined.  First, as you recall, there is the Dan Brown issue of whether some of the guys are really girls.  Now we have the serving size in LS paintings being either an indicator or predictor of obesity in the modern world.

I’d never looked closely before, so I decided to study a few LS paintings to see what they are talking about.  Maybe I was looking at a sample of different paintings, (and I didn’t have access to complex mathematical models) but I don’t see how they came up with their conclusions.  But it is clear that you can learn a lot from the paintings. 

As far as I know, the only Last Supper menu items specifically mentioned in the Bible are bread and wine.  Matthew says, “when supper was done . . .” so presumably there were other things as well and it is here that the artists have used some interesting imagination. 

Here is Leonardo’s famous version.  He seems to have limited himself to bread and wine.  We probably need some research to determine what the painting has to say about putting food on the table rather than on the plates.  Maybe it has something to do with the evolution of table manners—clearly an untapped area for research–because one thing you will note is that in later paintings there seems to be a lot of talking and gesturing going on while in earlier paintings, the participants are much calmer. 

In the painting below, speaking of calm, have a look at the guy to Jesus’s left in this 1310 depiction by Duccio di Buoninsegna.  Also, is it me or are the people facing us all looking at whatever is on the plate with uncertainty? And while we’re on the subject, what is that on the plate?

Here is how Andrea de Castagno portrayed it in 1447.  How did they measure the portion size in this one, I wonder?

Below is Giotto’s 1335 version.  I can’t say anything about the food, but the Apostle’s bottoms seem a little supersized to me.  Plus it looks like someone should do some research on improvements in halo technology over the years. 

Jacopo Bassano painted this one in 1546 which shows a return to loud 16th century table manners.  Also, I really hope this is the end of the meal rather than the beginning and that head is a leftover!

And this is Philippe de Champagne in 1652.  It’s always interesting to try to spot Judas in these paintings.  This is an easy one—he’s the guy in the front left with the attitude, showing some leg and a bag with his thirty pieces of silver.

 More recent paintings show less interest in reality (and food).  Here is William Blake’s 1799 depiction.

Lastly, here is Salvador Dali’s 1955 painting.  Although this one doesn’t seem to support the idea of serving sizes increasing, it is consistent with my theory about manners.  It looks like Jesus is rapping.  What next?  Cell phones at the table?

So where does that leave us?  A veritable unplowed field of potential research topics.  It’s about time someone used these paintings to run some projections about men’s fashion (especially footwear), how to seat guests at a dinner, table etiquette, what to wear to dinner, cuisine, and use of space in dining rooms. 

I look forward to hearing all about it.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2010 5:24 pm

    Let’s face it: the Last Supper was a Passover dinner. Perfect timing for this post as tonight is Passover.

    They were eating matzoh and drinking wine, probably dipping parsley in salt water and eating bitter herbs.

    Of course, Jesus changed the 4 questions into quite a religious pronouncement: This is my body (the matzoh) and this is my blood (the wine).

    Enjoyed the art work you took the time to post.

  2. April 1, 2010 4:58 am

    Really funny! There are definitely some questionable things on those plates, apart from the question of portion size. I feel very glad that I am not suddenly back in the 15th century eating whatever it is that they were eating. On a more serious note, it is really interesting to see a chronological presentation of the same subject done through the ages. It would be a great approach for teachers of art history.

  3. April 1, 2010 6:20 am

    Now that you reminded me of the Dan Brown twist, I do see that in several of the paintings there is (beside a more or less recognizable Judas) a manifestly wimpy or brooding or indeed effeminate disciple nearby Jesus.

    the plot thickens.

    Somewhat to my own surprise, I must say that Dali wins, btw.

    • April 1, 2010 11:13 am

      Spotting Judas is an interesting challenge with these paintings. I really wondered about the Giotto painting because at first glance everyone has a halo and you wouldn’t expect Judas to have one. But the guy on the left foreground has a shrinking, fuzzy halo. Plus he is reaching for the food with Jesus and all of the Evangelists state that Jesus makes a comment along the lines of “the betrayer is he who dips his hand into the dish with mine.” Case closed.

  4. April 1, 2010 8:47 am

    Irrespective of what they were eating and portion sizes, I wonder how the food got to the table in the first place.

    I don’t see a single waiter in any of these paintings.

  5. April 1, 2010 10:56 am

    When the waiter came, Jesus, trying to be funny, said “I didn’t like it” while pointing to his empthy matzoh bowl, and the waiter was so irate he never came back into the picture.

    • April 1, 2010 11:46 am

      Makes sense, especially in light of what happened to the funny man shortly thereafter.

  6. April 2, 2010 4:27 pm

    “… Also, is it me or are the people facing us all looking at whatever is on the plate with uncertainty?”

    Love your drolleries, Thomas. A very funny post. Ta 🙂

  7. Len Skuta permalink
    November 11, 2011 4:17 am

    Interesting but not surprising. I’m not an artist but I think my rendition would not co-incide with what was portrayed.Len

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