News Item: Nutrition & Art

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Portions Grow in Art of the Last Supper

Medical researchers and art historians recently engaged in a food fight about the meaning of changes in the portions and plates represented in pictures of the Last Supper.

The volley began with the publication in the May 2010 International Journal of Obesity of “The largest Last Supper: depictions of food portions and plate size increased over the millennium.”  The article documented results of the examination of 52 realistic depictions of Jesus’s last meal with his disciples.

The scientist brothers who co-authored the piece, Brian and Craig Wansink, observed that “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.”

(A note for the uninitiated:  P stands for the probability that results could be due to chance.  The lower the number, the more likely they’re not.  Not everyone believes that this method is reliable, but it’s currently the gold standard of proof.)

The Wansinks suggested that current increases in portion sizes have a long history,  and used their findings to support that hypothesis.  Assuming that such changes would be documented in representations of meals, they chose to look at the Last Supper because of how common a subject it’s been.

Art historians take issue with those conclusions.  Objecting to the choice of the Last Supper as a typical meal, Jon Seydl, curator of European Paintings and sculpture at the Cleveland Museum of Art, shared his ideas with ARTNews (Summer 2010).  The focus of the subject is not “about the act of eating food together,” he explained; it has a “specific Christian context.”  He also posited that changes in portion size might be related to the emergence of “still life as an independent genre” and/or changes in plate sizes over time.

Rudolph Bell, author of How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians, agreed with the need to look at “the increasing importance of still life over the centuries,” pointing out that “what seems realistic in the 18th century is going to be different from what feels realistic in the 13th.”

Weighing in on significant developments in the history of cuisine, John Varriano, author of Tastes and Temptations: Food and Art in Renaissance Italy, talked about the increase in the variety of things in general and food in particular from medieval to Renaissance times.  In the 16th and 17th centuries, artists and cooks liked to strut their stuff by loading plates and tables with artfully created spreads.

The lack of specificity in biblical texts concerning what was served at the Last Supper gave artists the opportunity to follow the example of chefs preparing 30-course meals based on the greatly expanded cookbooks of the time.  “But,” said Bell, “that doesn’t necessarily mean people were eating more.”

What about another observation made by the Wansinks, that average head size increased concurrently with portion size?  Martin Kemp, professor emeritus of art history at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of many books on Renaissance art, scoffed at the significance of that finding.

Reminding readers that over the years as representation became more naturally realistic and less stylized and symbolic, pictures of the infant Jesus, and children in general, looked less like miniature men and more like typical babies with proportionally larger heads than bodies.  “If you applied [the Wansinks’] methods,” Kemp quipped, “you would decide that over the course of the centuries children’s heads got markedly larger.”

Although one might question these particular findings as proof that portion sizes have grown over many years, no one can dispute the extensive evidence that excess consumption is not a recent invention.  Humans, in times of abundance, have always overindulged.  Survival depends on feasting in preparation for the next famine.  Evolution just hasn’t caught up with the reality of a food industry that purveys more for less, with less (nutritional value, that is) and woe to the human species because of it.