The Toronto Star has an article about a couple of researchers who decided to track meal sizes across a thousand years of Last Supper paintings and noticed an interesting trend. The earlier portrayals of this supposed event have very little in the way of food on the table, whereas more recent works really emphasize the supper.
Between the years 1000 and 2000, the average size of the main entrée exploded by 69.2 per cent, plates grew by 65.6 per cent and bread expanded by 23.1 per cent, according to research by academic siblings Brian Wansink, a nutritional science professor at Cornell and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think, and Craig Wansink, chair of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College.
The brothers, whose work was published online on Tuesday by the International Journal of Obesity, measured items in prominent artworks – including the classic 1498 mural by Leonardo da Vinci – depicting the feast chronicled in the New Testament.
The Wansinks determined that artists became increasingly generous with helpings over the centuries.
Charles Reeve, curator and professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design, is skeptical. Sampling art from different eras can’t really be indicative of a trend, especially when they’re trying to link it to overeating and obesity. I think I have to agree with him. It’s noteworthy, maybe, but not because of assumed food abuses.
Maybe it’s more a reflection of available wealth and affordability of food at the time the paintings were commissioned. If the artists were fairly well off and fairly well fed, they might have painted their own luxury and satisfaction instead of giving the world emaciated Christs. How much food would he have eaten 2000 years ago anyway?
The Toronto Sun concurs:
The authors … say the artists were likely keeping up with changing appetites and times.
Over the last 1,000 years — even though they were trying to reflect an event that happened more than a millennium before — their art was impacted by food becoming cheaper and easier to get.
Well, there you go.
I wonder if it’s worth mentioning that attitudes about body shape have changed a lot, too. Rubens painted buxom naked ladies, after all. I doubt it was to make fun of them.
I found a good article at foodmuseum.com:
The early Christians also looked scornfully upon the obese, counting gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins.
In some medieval paintings, sinners were shown as fat and Christ’s disciples as slender. And whether in Gothic art or its Victorian recrudescence, the attenuated, El Grecoesque morphology has often been equated with holiness, the sign of an ascetic life that eschews the carnal pleasures of the body in favor of the transcendent, fat-free pleasures of the soul.
To the common folk, however, the lure of portliness beckoned. “On balance, until fairly recently many societies put considerable value in plumpness,” said Dr. Peter N. Stearns, the provost of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and the author of “Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West.”
I think I’ve read that book.
“To be a good 20 to 40 pounds above what we would now consider desirable was seen as a sign of prosperity,” Dr. Stearns said. “Thin people were regarded with suspicion, as ugly. To say that Cassius had a `lean and hungry look’ was not a compliment.”
Now it’s a sign of prosperity if you’re ridiculously thin and can afford everything stamped “ORGANIC.”
But back to the art. I think it’s fascinating that painted food is fascinating. I think it does say a lot about culture and what we care about. Was a nine course meal the most important thing to put into a Last Supper painting, or were the people?
If we’re focusing on the food now, does that mean we care less about what the art is supposed to signify?
About whom it’s supposed to glorify?
Food for thought…