A variety of food centered sacred narratives have artistic appeal, from parables and miracles that involve food to sacred meals. Varriano (2009) discusses at length two sacred meals in particular, the Last Supper and the Dinner at Emmaus, which were depicted repeatedly by a number of Renaissance artists. Given the sparse details of the actual foods served at the meals and the oft-competing roles of literal and symbolic depictions, however, artistic purpose and intention can be difficult to discern, even in works portraying well-known sacred narratives.
Biblical Meanings of Food
Many of Christ’s parables utilized food as metaphors, symbols, and narrative devices to create commonality with his followers. Humble fishermen and farmers could thus relate to the subjects of his stories—such as the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the miracle of feeding the multitude with five loaves and two fish, the miracle of turning water into wine, and the story of Jesus and the fishers of men—because they are told using the common language of food. Meals, specifically, provide powerful subject matter. As Elsen states “the table…[serves] as a compositional and social catalyst” (174), thus imbuing sacred feasts with intriguingly layered and dramatic meaning. For example, the breaking of bread together was a shared experience with established cultural meaning, such as sustenance, community custom, and pleasure, prior to its elevation as a Christian sacrament. From an artistic perspective, meals also provide ample source material for portraying both food still life and narrative action.
Interpreting Sacred Feasts in Art
At least two problems arise in interpreting artistic works portraying sacred feasts, however, such as the Last Supper, the Dinner at Emmaus, and the Wedding at Cana. First, the Bible does not describe the foods served in detail. For example, the story of the Last Supper mentions only wine and bread. Varriano states, however, that artistic exploration beyond literal Biblical text is a hallmark of the Renaissance, stating, “the secularism and antiquarianism of the Renaissance were the forces necessary to bring this about” (2009: 95). With little narrative detail to work from, artists employed varying degrees of creative license, crafting meals suitable for a Biblical time and setting, feasts featuring foodstuffs of the artist’s own time, or meals simply drawn from the artist’s imagination.
While each of these interpretations is well within the explorative purpose of art, they were not equally well received by those commissioning the paintings, often the Church itself. For example, in Paolo Veronese’s depiction of the Last Supper, Feast in the House of Levi, he imagined a main dish of poultry and gave significant attention to glittering serving ware and cutlery (Varriano 2009: 112). While the Holy Office of the Inquisition was most distressed by the artist’s inclusion of extra unorthodox guests at the table, we see that Veronese’s imaginative touches to the dinner table reflect the artistic and intellectual climate of the Renaissance that embraced creativity beyond recorded details.
A second problem of interpreting sacred feasts in art lies in that the foods featured often embody both literal and symbolic meaning, making their deconstruction complex and layered. For example, the fact that the Gospels only mention wine and bread at the Last Supper might refer more to their roles in the sacrament than as the actual foodstuffs served. Fish, as well, has both a literal role as a period dish, and a symbolic one, serving as a Christian symbol.
For example, Varriano describes the Ravenna mosaic of the Last Supper, arguing that the six small loaves of bread and platter featuring two large fish, “emphasizes the symbolic over the literal aspects of the meal” (2009: 95). An artist’s intention to portray a literal feast, one with symbolic potential, or both can be difficult to discern from the works alone.
Regardless of the artist’s intention, the powerful meaning and visual appeal of food and meals ensure that works featuring sacred feasts possess lasting resonance for viewers.
- Elsen, Albert. Purposes of Art. Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishing, 1997.
- Varriano, John. Tastes and Temptations: Food and Art in Renaissance Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.