Here’s some food for thought as you gather ’round for Easter dinner: If art imitates life, were the twelve disciples overeating at Jesus Christ’s Last Supper? The answer is no, according to analysis of the amount of food depicted in paintings created over the last 1,000 years of history’s most famous dinner.

Instead, the size of food depicted in these paintings increased significantly over time, an indication that larger portion sizes have been a trend for at least the last millennium.

Brothers Brian and Craig Wansink, respectively a well-known eating behavior expert and a religious studies scholar, joined forces to index the sizes of food by the sizes of the average disciple’s head. (Read an article in which I interviewed Brian Wansink for CTV at this link.)

They found that portion size, plate size, and bread size depicted in the paintings have gone up dramatically over the last millennium. More specifically, the main courses shown in 52 of the best-known artwork of the Last Supper grew by 69 per cent, plate size by 66 per cent, and bread size by 23 cent.

The findings will be published in the April 2010 issue of the International Journal of Obesity.
“I think people assume that increased serving sizes, or ‘portion distortion,’ is a recent phenomenon,” Brian Wansink, professor and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, said in a statement.

“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,” he added.
Brian Wansink explores the topics of portion size and spatial relationships in his studies of food and eating behavior. He explores the hidden cues that determine how much we eat in his book “Mindless Eating.”

Craig Wansink specializes in New Testament studies and is the author of “Chained in Christ: The Experience and Rhetoric of Paul’s Imprisonments.”

“Whereas half of the paintings of the Last Supper included food and plates, most paintings did not depict wine, which precluded its analysis. Notwithstanding its absence, its spirit remains: the contemporary discovery of increasing portion sizes and food availability may be little more than 1000-yearold wine in a new bottle,” the authors say in the study.

If you are wondering, like I am, what they were eating at the Last Supper. The study’s authors say “The discernable main dishes that were depicted in the paintings contained included fish or eel (18%), lamb (14%) and pork (7%); the remaining paintings had no discernable main dish (46%).” But they also say that what has not been analyzed is how the depiction of food has changed over the centuries.