Portion sizes of foods have been noticably increasing in recent years, but when did this trend begin? If art imitates life and if food portions have been generally increasing with time, we might expect this trend to be reflected in paintings that depict food. Perhaps the most commonly painted meal has been that of Jesus Christ's Last Supper, chronicled in the New Testament of the Bible. A CAD–CAM analysis of the relative food-to-head ratio in 52 representative paintings of the Last Supper showed that the relative sizes of the main dish (entree) (r=0.52, P=0.002), bread (r=0.30, P=0.04), and plates (r=0.46, P=0.02) have linearly increased over the past millennium.
Public health concerns increasingly focus on the downsides of food abundance, portion size and obesity. While this focus is recent, a trend toward increasing portion size may have been more gradual. If art imitates life and if food resources have become generally more available over the past millennium, we might expect the size of the food portions depicted in paintings to increase over time.
Perhaps the most commonly painted meal has been that of Jesus Christ's Last Supper.1 According to the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) in the New Testament, the dinner took place during a Passover evening (Matthew 26:20) in ‘a large room upstairs, already furnished’ (Mark 14:15; Luke 22:12). Although lamb would have normally been served during a Seder, the three accounts of the event make no mention of food other than bread and wine.2, 3 Indeed, what has not been analyzed is how the depiction of food has changed with time.
The prior millennium (1000–2000 AD/CE) witnessed dramatic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance and affordability of food. Perhaps these changes would be reflected in how food has been depicted in this commonly understood, but uniquely interpreted, meal. This research investigates one link between food portion-size depictions throughout history. It compares the size of the food and plates that have been progressively depicted in the paintings of the Last Supper over the last millennium.
Based on selection criteria from the book, the Last Supper (2000), 52 of the best known depictions of the Last Supper4 over the last millennium (1000–2000 AD/CE) were analyzed for content and coded to determine changes over time.5 The sizes of the loaves of bread, main dishes and plates were assessed.6 To account for the varying dimensions of the paintings, the average sizes of these items were indexed based on the average size of the heads depicted in the paintings. This was aided by the use of a CAD–CAM program that allowed the items to be scanned, rotated and calculated, regardless of their original orientation in the painting. An index of 2.0 for the bread would indicate that the average width of the bread was twice the width of the average disciple's head.
The calculation of relevant ratios of size was confirmed by two independent coders who were blinded to the purpose of the study. Analyses were conducted using SPSS for Mac (version 12.0, SPSS, Chicago, IL, USA), with P>0.05 being considered as significant.
The main dishes5, 7 depicted in the paintings contained included fish or eel (18%), lamb (14%) and pork (7%); the remaining paintings had no discernable main dish (46%). Table 1 illustrates the positive relation between year and the ‘main dish by head’ ratio, ‘bread by head’ ratio, and ’plate by head‘ ratio.
Consistent with expectations, the size of food depicted in these paintings increased with time. The date of the painting explained 27% of the variation in size of the main course (P=0.002), 9% of the variation in size of the bread (P=0.04), and 21% of the variation in size of the average plate at the table (P=0.04). From its depiction circa 1000 AD/CE to the present, the ratio of this main course entree has generally increased by 69.2%. Similarly, the ratio of the size of bread has increased by 23.1% and that of the size of plate by 65.6%.
Results of a nonlinear regression of years to entrée size show a nonlinear increase in the size of entrées over the years (see Figure 1). The year in which a painting was completed accounts for 27% of the variation in size of the entrée using a linear model. A nonlinear regression accounts for 41% of this variation because of the sharper increase in relative size from 1500 to 2000 AD.
The Last Supper is history’s most famous dinner.8 During the past millennium, in portrayal of this event, the relative sizes of the main dish (r=0.523, P=40.002), the bread (r=0.304, P=0.040), and the plate (r=0.46, P=0.023) have linearly increased.
Analyzing the sizes or types of foods in art and in the media can provide a creative investigation of other engaging questions that are either longitudinal or cross-cultural. Other depictions of food in art and media may parallel their salience in day-to-day activities.9 If so, the depiction of how food is longitudinally represented and discussed in TV, films and social media could allow an opportunity for a deeper meta-analysis of key trends in our current culture.
Whereas half of the paintings of the Last Supper included food and plates, it is interesting to note that most paintings did not depict wine, which precluded its analysis. Notwithstanding its absence, its spirit remains: the contemporary discovery of increasing portion sizes and food availability may be little more than 1000-year-old wine in a new bottle.
We thank Audrey Cohen for help with data collection, and to Mitsuru Shimizu and Darcy Steeg for help with data analysis.
About this article
International Journal of Obesity (2011)