The Last Supper is one of the most recognisable images in the world, and one of the most painted scenes in the history of art. Artists adapted faces, clothing, and settings to the places in which they lived and worked. And they put food on the table that was symbolic, recognisable, and acceptable for their audience. While wine and bread are the only sacramental necessities, some surprising foods ended up on the table around the world.
Undoubtedly, the most celebrated Last Supper painting is by Leonardo da Vinci. For the refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, Leonardo painted a very realistic fresco with a table seen from a higher viewpoint than was typical of most Renaissance depictions of the subject. This allows more of the tabletop to be visible. On a well-ironed tablecloth we see bread, wine and plenty of fruit. A plate to our left contains about half a dozen whole fish. There is another plate on the right, which was illegible until a recent restoration. Researchers revealed the curious item on this plate: grilled eel garnished with orange slices. Eels could not have been served in the original supper, but they were a delicacy in Renaissance Italy, as mentioned in period cookbooks.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1498, Fresco
The Last Supper became a popular scene during Renaissance for artists to showcase their skills. The painting of Paolo Veronese, commissioned for the monastery of San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1562-3 (currently at the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice) is perhaps the most lavish renaissance banquet scene, with people, servants and wandering dogs. The number of people and items in this large canvas got so outrageous that the Inquisition put the painter on trial. Finally, Veronese had to change the name of the painting to avoid punishment. Besides a tremendous amount of people, such as a nose-bleeding servant, a jester with a parrot, and two German soldiers, Saint Peter to the right of Jesus carves a piece of lamb, like a noble Renaissance banquet carver trinciante would, while a cat peeks next to his feet under the table.
Paolo Veronese, The Feast in the House of Levi, 1563, oil on canvas
So, what would Christ and his apostles really have eaten? According to food history professor Ken Albala, Jesus ate more or less a Mediterranean diet, according to what was available in the Holy Land at the time: bread and wine were staples, olives were essential food, along with figs, dates and pomegranates, nuts, chickpeas, lentils, greens, cheese and perhaps a little lamb or goat meat. Whether Jesus drank wine or ate meat himself is inconclusive. Journalist Lauretta Colonnelli, the author of La tavola di Dio (The Table of God) writes that a Passover meal such as this would have included foods like bitter herbs (lettuce, wild chicory sprouts or celery), unleavened bread, a sauce of fruits and nuts called charoset, roasted lamb, and wine, most likely sweetened and flavoured.
Surprisingly, for a long time at the beginning of Christianity, the Last Supper was not illustrated at all. The first known depiction is on a 6th century mosaic from Ravenna, where we see Christ and the twelve apostles reclining around a low table, on which there are two very large fish on a plate surrounded by loaves of bread. This might have been the actual sitting arrangement of the Last Supper, but the austerity of the food seems more figurative than true, fish being the symbol of Christ.
Mosaic in Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo. Last Supper, Anonymous, 6th century
In medieval paintings we don’t see much detail of food. The obsession with sin did not allow artists to celebrate the meal. However, we often find one or two local food items on the Last Supper table, such as pretzels. The pretzel was a symbol of the holy trinity and eternal life, and an ideal Lenten food, being made of water, flour and salt. As such, they ended up in illuminated medieval manuscripts and paintings from Germany and northern Italy. For example, in a Bavarian Last Supper example from the 11th century made for the Abbey of St. Peter in Salzburg, there is a pretzel on the right side of table. Christ is seated in the middle, according to medieval banquet etiquette. Judas is identified with a bird near his mouth, representing betrayal. He is often seen on the other side of the table in medieval paintings, dipping his hand into a bowl, enacting the verse: “He who has dipped his hand into the dish with me will betray me.”
Last Supper in a benedictional, Regensburg, about 1030-40, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig VII 1, fol. 38
Another Last Supper that stands out is by Marcos Zapata (1753) in the Cathedral of Cuzco in Peru. The spread on the table, besides bread and wine, includes chicha, a Peruvian fermented corn drink, and native potatoes, peppers, and corn. At the centre, in front of Christ, is a plate of guinea pig (cuy), an Andean staple and a sacrificial animal in Inca culture. All these enabled the local artist to make this scene more Peruvian. To top it all off, it is believed that Zapata painted Judas to resemble Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador responsible for the fall of the Inca Empire.
Guinea pig in Cuzco Cathedral, Peru, Marcos Zapata (1753)
If we are what our icons eat, what would a modern day Last Supper look like? Donuts for eternal life, Coca-Cola as the symbol of divine grace, and on a central platter a large pepperoni pizza divided in 12 slices, Judas reaching for the slice of Jesus? Or gluten-free bread rolls and a bottle of celebrity rosé. It really depends on the viewer, rather than the eater.