What’s All This about Super-Sized Last Suppers?

I think most college towns have a place where you can buy burritos advertised as being “as big as your head!”  One opened up across the street from North Campus during the autumn of my undergrad days, and still today I can remember the disappointment I felt when they pushed one of those special burritos across the counter.  Yes, it was technically as big as my head, but only providing you measured the burrito along its longest axis and my head along its shortest, and regardless it was mostly just lettuce when you bit into it.

I felt that same sting of disappointment today when I read about this new study that purports to show (with the aid of new computerized analysis techniques) that portion sizes have been increasing in depictions of the Last Supper for the last thousand years.  You’ve seen them already, surely, but on the off chance you haven’t, here’s a representative example from Fox News: “Super-Sizing the Last Supper?“*

So as you all know (or having taken a detour to Fox now know), the study was put together by Brian Wansink of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and his brother Craig Wansink, a religious studies professor at Virginia Wesleyan College.  The two claim to have arrived at their conclusion by comparing the size of the heads of the apostles to the size of the various foodstuffs and plates on the table before them in “52 of the best-known paintings of the Last Supper.”**  Their research is set to be published in the International Journal of Obesity next month.

To put it simply, this study is a load of crap.  It’s a load of crap as big as your head.  With my head, Jesus’s head, the apostles’ heads, and the Brothers Wansinks’ heads thrown in for good measure.


Where to begin?  Perhaps with the claim that the authors studied “52 of the best-known paintings of the Last Supper”.  By “52 of the best known,” they mean that they consulted got all their data from one book, Last Supper, put out by Phaidon Press.  And that’s it.  Just the one book.  And it’s not a particularly rigorous treatment of the Last Supper, either, more or less just a coffee table book, the sort you’d find marked down on the big random rack at the front of the Barnes and Noble, sandwiched between Dragonology and the thirteenth and fourteenth volumes of the complete collected Garfield. It’s like they literally grabbed the first book on the Last Supper they saw and decided to end their research there.

Last Supper makes no attempt to be representative or thorough with respect to time period, region, medium, or style; it’s just 52 pretty pictures.*** It doesn’t take an expert to worry that 52 paintings might not be enough to cover 1000 years across all of Europe and America.  Even if the paintings were spread out evenly–and they’re not–that’s only one data point every twenty years.  And it requires assuming that all the cultures that fell under the heading “medieval”–from Syria to Scotland–developed at the same rate in both artistic representation and food-size preference, and that these preferences were likewise expressed in the same way in the cultures that developed from the medieval European ones–from Catalonia to California.

Now, before I go on, I don’t want to set myself up as an authority on all art of the last 1000 years or even all medieval art.  My degrees are in literature, not art history.****  I’m no expert, but I’ve dabbled, and I’ll constrain my comments to the period in which I’ve dabbled, which covers roughly the first 2/5ths of the thousand years discussed in the story.

We might call those 400 problematic years “the High and Late Middle Ages,” or we might call them them “the four-hundred years before linear perspective became popular” or we might even go so far as to call them “four-hundred years during which the size of objects in art was not meant to convey their relative dimensions but rather their symbolic importance.”   OK, those last two are a bit clunky, but accurate nonetheless.  To show what I mean, let me start with the picture that no doubt springs immediately to mind when I say “Last Supper,” da Vinci’s version, made circa 1495:

 Image not mine, but has been bouncing around the net forever

As anyone with an Art History 101 class under their belt could explain to you, da Vinci, through some clever geometric trickery developed by Brunelleschi, gave his two-dimensional image the appearance of three-dimensions,  partly by drawing objects in the foreground larger than those in the background and partly by lining up the straight edges  in the image so that if they were extended they’d converge on a single point at Jesus’s head. 

Now, take these examples of medieval Last Suppers, culled from various manuscripts (which will zoom if you click them):

Notice that there’s only a rough sense of three-dimensionality to any of the images.  And that’s not the only bit of proportional wonkiness:

  1. Jesus is tall.  Real tall.  Like, half a head taller than any apostle in Douce 313, a head and a half in Douce 293, and in M. 360 he’s roughly twice as big as most of his buds.
  2. While the tables are generally drawn in front of the participants, there’s no attempt made to fit the table to the apostles or vice versa.  In Douce 313 the table is roughly as wide across as Jesus’s legs and could fit in his lap if he wanted.
  3. St. John, who sleeps in Jesus’s lap, is a tiny baby man.  Sure, anyone would look small next to Sasquatch Jesus, but his whole body is only a little bigger than Judas’s head in Egerton 2781.  He could use one of the pieces of bread on the table as a pillow. 
  4. Everybody has freakishly long hands and feet.  Feet and hands as big as whole fish are the norm.

There are good reasons for all this other than “medieval people just couldn’t draw,” of course.  For instance:

  1. Size is often relative to importance.  Jesus is so big because he’s the most important one in the scene. 
  2. Furniture and architecture are just not interesting to medieval artists. The tables are present just to set the scene, to tell us where we’re at.
  3. St. John is small because he’s there as an attribute.  It’s just like St. Catherine–who they tried to put to death on a wheel–is usually shown holding a wheel that’s way too small for her to fit on.  The wheel is there to remind us of the story of how she broke the wheel by touching it, not to provide comparative wheel/body ratios.  Tiny St. John is just reminding us of part of the story of the Last Supper.
  4. The hands are huge because we need to see the gestures they’re making.  The gesture conveys information that medieval eyes could immediately read, even if it’s obscure to us.

In effect, the spatial proportions in these images serve the meaning behind the images.  They’re not meant to reflect physical reality. And that means that comparing the size of pieces of food to holy apostolic body parts is so much nonsense, at least for the first 400 years that the study claims to discuss. 

I don’t have a copy of Last Supper, so I can’t tell you if any of the images I pulled are in the study.  I rather doubt it.  If they were, you’d think there’d be at least a footnote in the paper mentioning that by the fourteenth century the apostles ate chickens and fish that were almost as big as their friend St. John and that Jesus could swallow all three whole if he wanted to.  But I do know a couple of images that appear in the book.  Here’s one, a carved wooden panel found in Notre Dame de Paris:

The human proportions in it are a bit more realistic, I’ll give you that.  St. John isn’t pocket-sized, and the food is all respectably smaller than the heads of the eaters.  But if you look at the left side of the image, you’ll see that the castle that the apostles are eating in is about the same height as they are, and it’s guarded by soldier that would only come up to their waists.  So while the bread is smaller than the apostles’ heads, that’s only because they’re castle-sized giants. Most things are smaller than their heads. Bakers working round the clock with ovens the size of city blocks must make their bread.

You’d think this would throw off the tidy steadily increasing curve they drew to accompany their findings, at least for the twenty years on either side of 1400.

One final note.  The actual paper that’s going to be published next month appears to be about five pages long, double spaced, bibliography included.  So that means that with this blog post I’ve officially written more on the subject than they have.  When’s CNN going to call and ask me to give my expert opinion on how many fish Jesus’s could fit in his freakishly oversized mitts?*****

From reading some of the enthusiastic links to my piece out there (thanks, all!), I realized that I inadvertently gave the impression that the only book the authors of the study used at all was Last Supper.  I meant to indicate instead that they took all of their Last Supper images from this one book.  They do in fact cite other books about the Last Supper–maybe six or so more–but all their data comes from one very unrepresentative collection of Last Supper pictures. [RETURN]

*The link is meant as no sly dig at Fox’s reporting style.  There’s really nothing special about the way they’ve handled the story compared to other outlets.  Even the lame McDonalds reference is de rigueur.  You can find the same story and the same joke at NPR, the BBC News, and USA Today as well.
**This quote taken directly from the brothers’ website advertising the study.
***Actually, it’s more like 200 pretty pictures, but it includes sculptures and carvings, too.  And this is meant as no sly dig at the book itself.  It is what it is.  As the Director of the British Museum says in his review, it’s a nice series, with “well produced” images “from all over the world, supreme masterpieces rubbing shoulders with surprising and magnificently chosen obscurities.”  If you want a copy, you can pick it up for $5 used or $10 new at Amazon.
****Though, to be fair, neither of the study’s principles have degrees in art history, either.
*****I’m pretty free tomorrow.  Just throwing that out there.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Judy

    Great concise explanation!

    I own the Phaidon book. It is kind of handy for explaining why St. John is not Mary Magdalene and why Mary Magdalene is not a chalice, stuff like that. Not that anybody ever says anything but, "Well, but she could have been…"

    I don't think any of your 6 examples are in there. I don't have the book here, but a couple of the examples from it I do have suggest a pretty good sense of proportion that might have led these "scientists" astray (although it is true that depicting half the objects on the table in a kind of aerial view and the other half seen from the side might be a clue that things are not as they seem). However, Duccio's whole roast lamb on a plate (I assume that is what it is–anyway, a quadruped) is about the same size as Jesus' face's longways. A little research reveals that a 47" spit is recommended nowadays for roasting a whole lamb (cf. also http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJHJfJ2xnog, where the carcass is wider than the cook's shoulders, though no doubt it cooks down some), so one might speculate that lambs have gotten bigger rather than plates. Or one might just read your blog.

    If they really want to prove something, they should show that reproductions of Leonardo's Last Supper over the ages have growing plates and/or bread loaves. This would really work, since it must have been engraved, copied, staged with live people for photography, and artistically appropriated (e.g. by Andy Warhol, and I would say by Dali also) many times over the centuries. Interesting for religion, too–the desire to see Jesus well-fed (or not) before his ordeal.

  • Sheryl

    As usual, you provide a wonderful argument against inanity with good examples and great snideness.

    Also, "Sasquatch Jesus" is going to be my phrase for today.

  • Frederick M. Hemker IV

    Very, very good post. Please, keep up the good work.

  • Kate

    Thank you much for posting this. The methodology over this 'study' was driving me nuts.

  • Got Medieval

    Yeah, I knew my six randomly selected ones wouldn't be there, but you can't tell which ones are from the index, where they're just listed as "manuscript illumination."

    Also, I'm pretty sure I'm over halfway to having as many medieval images in my post as they have in their entire study.

  • Harry Campbell

    Who better to unpick the subtleties of medieval religious art than the John Dyson Professor of Consumer Behavior at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab?

    Come on though, Brian Wansink and Charlene Shoneye? Are these anagrams or something?

  • Got Medieval

    Holy crap! Brian Wansink is an anagram for "A Swank Rib Inn!" This has all been an elaborate plot to launch a new franchise of upscale rib-based bbq bed and breakfasts!

    And his brother Craig? "Snack Rag: I Win!" A competing chain?

  • Harry Campbell

    And is Char-lean Shoneye any relative of Barbie Q Ribeye?

  • Brian

    Great opening example about burritos as big as your head.

    I coincidently wrote a similar intro (being familiar with the restaurant you mention, having been a professor at UIUC) in this week's Atlantic column about the Largest Last Supper. It gets at some of the bigger issues that can only be alluded to in academic journals.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/food/archive/2010/03/jesus-christ-supersize-the-growing-last-supper/37982/

  • Amber Lee

    The hype going on right now about the Lord's Supper right now is a depressing reminder of what happens when people do not have a well rounded education or at least take the time to be well-read on their own. Instead, they get their history education from a Network Correspondent and will trust the obesity report simply because it is published in an academic setting.

  • Matthew Gabriele
  • James

    Anyone notice that Brian Wansink's head is really, really large? Like "medievally disproportionate to the size of his chin" large?

  • Derek

    Dr. Wansink is right. You probably wouldn't have been so dismissive of his research if you knew he recently had dinner with a VP from Goldman Sachs.

  • ncm

    Every last employee at Goldman Sachs, right down to the janitor and whoever has to talk to you on the phone, is a vice president.

  • Shih Tzu

    I'd just like to say that Egerton 2781 is badass. Everyone has awesome huge foreheads and, more surprisingly, distinct facial expressions in almost a cartoony pen-and-ink style. It's hard to believe it's not a modern piece. My experience with medieval art is very limited, but I'm not used to seeing it incorporate so much, uh, personality.

    Also, nice article. I'd skimmed the news reports and thought the idea of contrasting Last Supper renditions through the centuries was an intriguing one, but I hadn't realized they were actually trying to take comparative measurements of artistic depictions of food items and trying to call it science.

  • Hugh Sansom

    Hey man, I totally saw Jesus eatin' a Big Mac in Union Square, Manhattan, just two days ago. Who cares what he was doin' in a picture 1000 years ago. He's back and eatin' at Mickie D's. Looked like he could use a place to sleep.

  • cricket

    Thank you, and boola boola!
    Medieval Studies Ph.D. 1984

  • Larry Cebula

    Great post, let's hope it gets half the attention that crappy study received.

  • TomV

    Note that recent artists such as Dali have evidently become obsessed with the obesity problem and therefore set the table with the bare minimum of food (a cup and two loaves in his case).
    See Sacrament of the Last Supper

  • Joni

    well it's because businesses would want to be up to date, connected to people, and try to give people that would satisfy them

  • Pingback: Felix sit annus novus, etc. (The Top 5 Posts of 2010) — Got Medieval

  • Brent F.

    When I remember music from 1991 to 1993 I remember it having a certain acoustic “feel” of the early 1990s, but it wasn’t because the music was old, but because I recorded a lot of the music off the FM radio with a DC-Bias stereo cassette boombox. The music just “sounded like from that time”. Medieval drawings look like that time period because of the way they drew things. The same argument could be made for music before 1920 sounding honky because they were played on wind-up gramophones with a large trumpet. When the records are played electronically today the “correct” sound sounds *even more unnerving*.

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