Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Supersized Last Supper - Interesting But So What?

I wrote this in 10 minutes when I was very hungry. Excuse the convolution.

The web version of The Daily Telegraph reports today of a finding by a group of Cornell University researchers indicating that, based on the sizes of the bread and plates shown in The Last Supper, food portion sizes have "progressively grown by up to two-thirds" in the last millennium.

The group has cited the portion sizes shown in da Vinci's famous painting as one piece of evidence leading to the finding. "Using a computer, they compared the size of the food to the size of the heads in the depictions of Jesus Christ and his disciples at their final meal before his death," reports the Telegraph. The study concludes, based on what's shown in the painting, "... the size of the main dish grew 69 per cent, the plate by 66 per cent and the bread by 23 per cent, between the years 1000 and 2000." [Source]

Although the study has indeed shown what we all already know that today's portion sizes are bigger than what our forefathers were used to, the main point of the study, from what I have deduced from the article, is that the supersize phenomenon is actually a long and gradual process that has taken place over the past millennium and not necessary something recently introduced by greedy fast food companies as many have suggested; it's just more noticeable these days.

I don't have a problem with that conclusion. It's kind of interesting, actually. Not earth-shatteringly enlightening, but interesting nonetheless. What kind of bugs me is how people's attention is wrongly focused on the theme of the paintings (the Last Supper) and the characters found therein (Jesus and his disciples) instead of the real objects of the study, i.e. the perceptions of the painters. I'm not writing this in response to the Cornell group or the Telegraph; I'm writing this in response to all the "Jesus got supersized" tweets.

People should not automatically assume that the oldest of the 52 paintings -- the one that portrays the smallest amount of food -- is the most historically accurate (or, worse, more moral) than the newest of the 52 painting that portrays the biggest amount of food. More importantly, nobody should ever think that the smallest amount of food shown in the oldest of the 52 paintings more accurately represents the amount of food divinely prescribed to mankind.

These things may be true, but they are not what this particular study intends to show.

The Last Supper itself is irrelevant. Jesus and his disciples are irrelevant. What is being studied is how much food the painters of these 52 paintings, painted in the course of a millennium, imagined to be present at the Last Supper and how the amounts changed over time.*

This study does not say that the portion sizes of the oldest painting more accurately represents the amount of food served at the Last Supper, and that the degree of accuracy gradually decreases over time with the newest painting being the least accurate. This study is about a group of different (European?) painters and how the amounts of food they imagined being served at the same event vary according to the time in which they (the painters) lived.

Who really knows what and how much was served at the famous supper? Painting #20, painted at the mid-point between 1000 CE and 2000 CE may actually portrays more historically accurate amounts. Nobody knows. It's all imagined. The smallest portion sizes are imagined. The largest portion sizes are also imagined. Everything else in between is also imagined. Who is Leonardo da Vinci but an Italian artist who tried to imagine what a group of Palestinian Semites ate at a Passover meal circa 30 CE? At a risk of sounding like a broken record, the focus of the study is on 1. the painters, whose works were produced between 1000 and 2000 CE, 2. how their perceptions of portion sizes influence the amounts of food they imagined to be served at that event, and 3. how those perceptions might have been influenced by what their contemporaries considered to be the norm.

By the way, am I seeing things or does the bread in da Vinci's The Last Supper look more like dinner rolls than the flat, unleavened bread one would expect at a, uh, you know, Passover meal?

*Why the Last Supper? Because the study is about food and portion size and what food-centric historical scene is as consistently portrayed as the Last Supper? If the biblical scene of, say, how Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, were portrayed in a painting as often as the Last Supper, I'm sure those paintings would have been studied to see how the size of the bowl shown in the earliest painting has grown over time.