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“Last Supper” got ever bigger in paint: study

March 24, 2010
Courtesy Cornell University Food and Brand Lab
and World Science staff

Were the twelve apos­tles guilty of over­eat­ing at the Last Sup­per? 

Two re­search­ers are pub­lish­ing find­ings that sug­gest a trend of in­creas­ing por­tion sizes, to­day of­ten blamed on fast-food restau­rants, might have real­ly started cen­turies ago.

Two Last Sup­per paint­ings: the above from 1308-1311A.D., and be­low from 1544 A.D., by the Ital­ian artists Duc­cio and Ti­tian re­spc­tively. Note how the size of the food, bread, and plates on the ta­ble com­pare with the size of the heads of Je­sus and his dis­ci­ples, re­search­ers say.


Broth­ers Bri­an and Craig Wan­sink—an eat­ing be­hav­ior ex­pert and a re­li­gious stud­ies schol­ar re­spec­tive­ly—teamed up to an­a­lyze the amount of food de­picted in 52 of the best-known paint­ings of Christ’s Last Sup­per. 

Among these are the ico­nic 15th-cent­ury mu­ral on the theme by Leo­n­ardo da Vin­ci in Mi­lan, Italy.

The paint­ings de­pict Je­sus Christ con­sum­ing a fi­nal din­ner with his 12 dis­ci­ples shortly be­fore his sav­age cru­ci­fix­ion.

Af­ter in­dex­ing the sizes of the foods by the sizes of the av­er­age dis­ci­ple’s head, the Wan­sinks found that por­tion size, plate size, and bread size in­creased dra­mat­ic­ally over the last thou­sand years. 

Over­all, the main cours­es de­picted grew by 69 per­cent, plate size by 66 per­cent, and bread size by 23 per­cent, the re­search­ers said.

The find­ings are to be pub­lished in the April is­sue of the In­terna­t­ional Jour­nal of Obes­ity and were re­leased in the on­line ver­sion of the jour­nal on March 23.

“I think peo­ple as­sume that in­creased serv­ing sizes, or ‘por­tion dis­tor­tion,’ is a re­cent phe­nomenon,” said Bri­an Wan­sink, di­rec­tor of the Food and Brand Lab at Cor­nell Uni­vers­ity in New York. “But this re­search in­di­cates that it’s a gen­er­al trend for at least the last mil­len­ni­um.”

“As the most fa­mously de­picted din­ner of all time, the Last Sup­per is ide­ally suit­ed for re­view,” added Craig Wan­sink, pro­fes­sor of re­li­gious stud­ies at Vir­gin­ia Wes­ley­an Col­lege. 

“The meth­od we used cre­at­ed a nat­u­ral cross­roads be­tween our two di­ver­gent fields and a won­der­ful op­por­tun­ity to col­la­bo­rate with my broth­er.”

Por­tion size and spa­tial rela­t­ion­ships are fa­mil­iar top­ics in Bri­an Wan­sink’s work in food and eat­ing be­hav­ior. In his book Mind­less Eat­ing: Why We Eat More Than We Think, he ex­plores the hid­den cues that de­ter­mine what, when, and how much we eat.


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Were the twelve apostles guilty of overeating at the Last Supper? Two researchers are publishing findings that suggest the trend of increasing portion sizes, often blamed on fast-food restaurants today, actually started centuries ago. Brothers Brian and Craig Wansink—an eating behavior expert and a religious studies scholar respectively—teamed up to analyze the amount of food depicted in 52 of the best-known paintings of Christ’s Last Supper, including the famous 15th-century mural on the theme by Leonardo da Vinci. The paintings depict Jesus Christ consuming a final dinner with his 12 disciples shortly before his savage crucifixion. After indexing the sizes of the foods by the sizes of the average disciple’s head, the Wansinks found that portion size, plate size, and bread size increased dramatically over the last thousand years. Overall, the main courses depicted in the paintings grew by 69%, plate size by 66%, and bread size by 23%, they said. The findings are to be published in the April 2010 issue of the International Journal of Obesity and released in the online version of the journal on Tuesday, March 23. “I think people assume that increased serving sizes, or ‘portion distortion,’ is a recent phenomenon,” said Brian Wansink, professor and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab of Cornell University in New York. “But this research indicates that it’s a general trend for at least the last millennium.” “As the most famously depicted dinner of all time, the Last Supper is ideally suited for review,” said Craig Wansink, professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College. “The method we used created a natural crossroads between our two divergent fields and a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with my brother.” Portion size and spatial relationships are familiar topics in Brian Wansink’s work in food and eating behavior. In his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, he explores the hidden cues that determine what, when, and how much we eat.