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The Last Supper: Art as Large as Life

Food is a familiar presence in works of art. Sometimes it is the sole focus, as in these modern woodcuts of pie or massive oil paintings of candy; in other cases it offers context or detail to people-centric scenes. Either way, studying food in art can often yield insights about human history, soci...

Food is a familiar presence in works of art. Sometimes it is the sole focus, as in these modern woodcuts of pie or massive oil paintings of candy; in other cases it offers context or detail to people-centric scenes. Either way, studying food in art can often yield insights about human history, sociology and culture.

Da Vinci's "Last Supper," painted circa 1495. Wikimedia Commons image.

So I think it was a clever idea to analyze how a particularly famous meal has changed in art through many centuries: "The Last Supper," the Biblically inspired scene of Jesus Christ sharing a final meal with his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. This meal has been imagined and re-imagined by dozens of artists including, most famously, Leonardo da Vinci.

The study, published today in the International Journal of Obesity, was the brainchild of two brothers: Brian Wansink, a consumer behavior expert who leads Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, and Craig Wansink, a Presbyterian minister who teaches at Virginia Wesleyan College. They analyzed the portion sizes in 52 notable "Last Supper" paintings, positing that as food resources have been more available in the developed world in recent years, "we might expect to see it reflected in popular culture."

Using computer-based statistical models with funny names like "bread-to-head ratio," they found that the size of the bread, plates and main courses depicted have grown steadily larger in relation to the scene's human subjects—increasing by 23, 66, and 69 percent, respectively.

"The last thousand years have witnessed dramatic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance and affordability of food," Brian Wansink said in a press release. "We think that as art imitates life, these changes have been reflected in paintings of history's most famous dinner."

As Katherine Hobson of U.S. News & World Reports points out, this isn't the first time Brian Wansink has pondered portion sizes from a historical perspective. He's also the guy behind last year's interesting study about The Joy of Cooking, which showed that the average calorie count in several of the cookbook's same basic recipes grew by 63 percent over the course of various editions in 70 years.

You can read more details, and watch a brief explanatory video on Wansink's website.
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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