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Super Size Me: how the Last Supper became a banquet over 1,000 years

Art imitates life as scientists discover that size of portions in paintings of Jesus's final meal grew over time

It is the most famous meal in history and now scientists have found that the artistic renditions of the Last Supper over the past thousand years show that the size of the plates and the amount of food being eaten by Jesus Christ and his disciples have grown significantly over the centuries.

A study of dozens of paintings of the Last Supper from AD1,000 to the more recent past has found that the depiction of Christ's final meeting with the 12 apostles suffered a type of "food inflation" normally associated with the supersized portions being served in modern-day, fast-food outlets.

Food items depicted in medieval paintings created at the turn of the first millennium are significantly smaller compared to the average size of the disciples' heads than the portions and plates drawn several centuries later, noticeably from the Renaissance onwards, the scientists said.

The findings indicate that the phenomenon of serving bigger portions on bigger plates, which has helped to push people into overeating food that they might not have otherwise eaten, has occurred gradually over the millennium, according to Professor Brian Wansink of Cornell University in New York.

"We took the 52 most famous paintings of the Last Supper and analysed the size of the entrées, bread and plates, relative to the average size of the average head in the painting," Professor Wansink said.

The study found that the size of the food portions and plates depicted in the paintings expanded significantly. The size of the main dish grew by 69 per cent, the size of the plates grew by 66 per cent and the size of the bread depicted in the paintings grew by 23 per cent over the course of the 1,000-year period, Professor Wansink explained.

"The last 1,000 years have witnessed dramatic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance and affordability of food. We think that these changes have been reflected in paintings of history's most famous dinner," he said.

Each of the 52 paintings, taken from the book Last Supper published by the Phaidon Press in 2000, was scanned into a computer and the food items and figures analysed by computer-aided design software that could rotate objects and measure their dimensions irrespective of their original orientation in the work of art.

Professor Wansink co-authored the study published in the International Journal of Obesity with his brother Craig, professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. They wanted to test the idea that food portions have increased as food has become abundant over time.

"If art imitates life and if food resources have become generally more available over the past millennium, we might expect the size of food, the portions and the plate sizes that are depicted in these paintings, to increase over time," Professor Wansink said.

Although the Last Supper is a central part of Christian theology, and is mentioned in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, nothing is known about how much was served or what exactly was eaten, except that it included bread and wine. In the paintings, about 18 per cent of the tables served fish or eel, 14 per cent showed lamb being served and 7 per cent painted portions of pork.

"Our starting point was with the artistic representations and the portrayal of food portions and sizes. The empirical reality at an average dinner table may have been different. What stands out in the paintings is the perception that portions were greater," said Professor Craig Wansink.

"Because there were not strong theological reasons that accounted for the size of the changes in plates, main dishes, and bread in these paintings, we were just intrigued by the gradual increase. Even if people themselves weren't necessarily eating more, this emphasis on abundance is striking," he said.

"The growth seemed consistent – a generally upward slope – but increases in the 16th and 17th centuries stand out," he added.