Portion Sizes in 'Last Supper' Paintings Grew Over Time

Editor’s note: The story below includes research from Brian Wansink. On Sept. 20, 2018, Wansink resigned from Cornell University, after an internal investigation found that he had "committed academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship," according to a statement from Cornell University Provost Michael Kotlikoff.

Nutrition experts have analyzed the food depicted in some of the best-known paintings of the biblical Last Supper and found that the portion and plate sizes depicted in them increased substantially from older paintings to those painted more recently.

The findings suggest the trend of bigger plates and portions that has been noticed recently and linked to obesity may have been in the works for much longer, the researchers suggest.

"I think people assume that increased serving sizes, or 'portion distribution' is a recent phenomenon," said Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. "But this research indicates that it's a general trend for at least the last millennium."

In his lab, Wansink and his colleague investigate eating behaviors and how they might link to the current obesity epidemic in the United States and elsewhere. One factor they have linked to being overweight is large food portions, which can cause people to overeat.

Wansink teamed up with his brother Craig Wansink, a religious studies professor at Virginia Wesleyan College, to look at how portion sizes have changed over time by examining the food depicted in 52 of the most famous paintings of the scene from the Last Supper.

"As the most famously depicted dinner of all time, the Last Supper is ideally suited for review," Craig Wansink said.

From the 52 paintings, which date between 1000 and 2000 A.D., the sizes of loaves of bread, main dishes and plates were calculated with the aid of a computer program that could scan the items and rotate them in a way that allowed them to be measured. To account for different proportions in paintings, the sizes of the food were compared to the sizes of the human heads in the paintings.

The researchers' analysis showed that portion sizes of main courses (usually eel, lamb and pork) depicted in the paintings grew by 69 percent over time, while plate size grew by 66 percent and bread size grew by 23 percent.

Both Wansinks suggest that as food has become more available over the last millennium, the way people, including artists, view and depict food has changed accordingly, with the same dinner scene being viewed as having more on the table in more recent decades and centuries.

The results of the study are detailed in the April issue of the International Journal of Obesity.

Andrea Thompson
Live Science Contributor

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.