Are we really aware of the abundance that many enjoy in the developed world today – compared not only to less fortunate areas, but also compared to the past? A fascinating but little publicized study conducted at Cornell University a few years ago throws light on the growing abundance which many of us may take for granted.
In a careful study published as “The Largest Last Supper: Depictions of Food Portions and Plate Size Increased over the Millennium” in 2010, researchers Brian and Craig Wansink analyzed the amount of food depicted in 52 paintings of “The Last Supper” produced over the last millennium. Each painting was analyzed in order to ascertain the content of the meals depicted and changes which occurred over time in the kinds of food and the size of portions in the paintings. Cleverly, the sizes of the loaves of bread, the main food dishes, and the plates were all compared to the average size of the heads shown in the paintings in order to gain a benchmark reference. A computerized CAD-CAM program was used to allow selected parts of the paintings to be scanned, then rotated in order to get accurate size comparisons to calculate the food portion sizes with more precision.
As the researchers suspected, the number and size of the food portions in these paintings increased dramatically with time. From AD 1000 to the present, the amount of food depicted in the paintings increased 69.2%, and the size of the depicted plates increased 65.5%. This is certainly not a matter of chance, the researchers say. There is no question that the amount of food available to people in much of the Western world has grown dramatically over the hundreds of years covered by this study, and this is reflected in artistic representations. What was first shown as a simple meal has grown in artistic interpretations to more recent depictions of the Last Supper which suggest almost feast-like proportions compared to earlier paintings.
Today, many of us enjoy much greater abundance than our ancestors, as well as those less fortunate than us in other parts of today’s world. Representations of the Last Supper can remind us that we have much to be thankful for physically, as well as spiritually.