Chalk it up to an abundance that didn’t exist in the time of Christ. Or an abundance of free time for art experts these days, time for them to take their fill of  research into the oddly inquisitive.

As Holy Week approaches, it’s a good time to look into the Last Supper.

Two researchers analyzed the food and plate sizes in 52 of the most famous paintings of The Last Supper and found that the portion sizes in the paintings have increased dramatically over the past millennium, from years 1000 to 2000.

Using a computer program, they compared the size of loaves of bread, main dishes and plates to the size of the heads of the disciples and Jesus in the artwork, including Leonardo da Vinci’s famous depiction of the event.

Findings published in April’s International Journal of Obesity: Over that 1,000-year period, the main course size increased by 69%, plate size 66% and loaves of bread 23%. The biggest increases in size came after 1500.

The researchers used paintings of this event “because it is the most famous supper in history,” which artists have been painting for centuries, so the paintings provide information about plate and entree sizes over time…

So that’s it. From the sacred to the profane. We are fixated right now on obesity, for good reasons. But since we’re also a pop culture, cross-coverage of popular issues is the media trend we can’t escape. Even in applying dietary notices to the great artistic renditions of Christ’s Last Supper.

The researchers themselves bring an interesting set of backgrounds to the report. One was Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell (University) Food and Brand Lab in Ithaca, N.Y.

He did the research with his brother, Craig, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, and a Presbyterian minister.

The three Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), which include descriptions of The Last Supper, mention only bread and wine, but many of the paintings have other foods, such as fish, lamb, pork and even eel, says Craig Wansink.

The use of fish in the meals is symbolic because it’s an image that is used to represent Christianity, he says. Among the reasons for the symbolism: A number of the disciples were fishermen, and Jesus told them “to be fishers of men,” he says. Plus, he says, Jesus performed several miracles with fishes and loaves.

As Easter approaches, he says, people may want to study the paintings because they illustrate one of the “most important moments in Christianity. It’s both beautiful and haunting.”

And that’s the bottom line.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....