By now you’ve probably heard about the study that showed the size of food in paintings of the Last Supper compared to head sizes of Jesus and the disciples had increased tremendously over the years, 69 percent to be exact.
Now, food to head ratio is not a common measure of, well, anything really. But in a press release, the authors state:
“The last thousand years have witnessed dramatic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance and affordability of food,” said Cornell’s Wansink, author of “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.” “We think that as art imitates life, these changes have been reflected in paintings of history’s most famous dinner.”
Well, hold on a sec. Over the time of the sampled paintings, the plate size increased by 66%, it says in the lit. Artists were struggling with perspective and pseudo-perspective. If plate size increases proportionally in time and space to the size of the food on it, can we really say that art is reflecting the linear path toward overabundance of food?
In any case, you can get a very good idea of what medieval art was all about and how it relates to the study from Got Medieval: What’s All This About Super-Sized Last Suppers
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.
Ok, so Carl has some enticing bones to pick. But for me there’s another issue. It is this: we always see what fascinates us in the art we peer into. In my opinion, the study’s conclusion is backwards. Many want to see abundance, so they see the food as bigger, despite the fact the plate it’s on remains proportional to it. We think people should be stupider than their food, so we see shrunken skulls (ok, so the last one I made up because I’m ornery).
Remember when space travel was new? Boy, send in several plethoras of Chariots of the Gods! because we really, really wanted the advance of culture to be determined by what we’d find in space. Archaeologists (well, fringe archaeologists) were seeing space ships in every prehistoric engraving on earth. It’s the easy explanation we crave. “They were given that technology by little space men!” “Eat no salt and you can live forever!”
Sometimes, life is more complicated. You have to dig.
In any case, this phenomenon wasn’t the only occurrence. It happened earlier, when Victorians started developing “water closets” so they didn’t have to head to the outhouse in winter. Suddenly, according to archaeologists and pseudo archaeologists, every ancient Egyptian in the upper class had plumbing, every drain drained bodily fluids from voluntary emitters (when most likely those drains were a necessary part of the embalming process). Everyone looked for ancient bathrooms, and often found them.
We see what we want to see in the art in front of us. Instead of seething with wonder, we often seek the too-easy answer.
And that’s what the authors of the study did. As large corporations beat their hairy breasts and tout the wonders of the unrelenting genetic manipulation that has had allowed them to produce cheap crap food while they ravage the environment, we see it reflected in holy paintings. But it’s all an illusion. There, look at the plate…
Well, that’s how I see it anyway.
Head on over to the Wandering Italy Facebook page for a heaping helping of Food Elitism and and a Grappa discussion. Really.