Eve's Apple to the Last Supper

Picturing Food in the Bible

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C. M. Kauffmann
  • Suffolk, UK: 
    Boydell & Brewer
    , May
     184 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As the title indicates, C.M. Kauffman’s Eve’s Apple to the Last Supper: Picturing Food in the Bible covers a vast breadth of time, themes, and media in an attempt to explain the way foods have been depicted in biblical art from the 4th through the 17th centuries. Examining frequently used illustrations of food and feasting from both the Old and the New Testament, Kauffman presents nineteen case studies on why—and how—stories from the Bible have been depicted by various artists. The sections—which vary significantly in length and depth—follow an introduction which is lively yet often feels disjointed, lacking a strong argumentative arc. In addition, the subtitle, "Picturing Food in the Bible," could also be misleading. Kauffman acknowledges on page two that references to, and actual depictions of, food in these images is “sparse” (2). With an overriding focus on tableware and dining arrangements, perhaps “Picturing Dining in the Bible” would have been a better choice, as those seeking information about food and its context in the Bible might find themselves disappointed.

The images are high quality and beautifully printed, representing a wide selection of illuminations, paintings, and ceramics from different geographical locations and historical periods. This makes the book a good resource for those looking to discover new sources from within the photos. The sections on Passover (chapter 4), Herod’s feast (chapter 17), and The Last Supper (chapter 1) examines how these stories have been variously depicted over the centuries and how these depictions have been received.

Kauffman’s exploration of why certain foods are included in specific works is fascinating albeit quite limited in the text. Biblical passages from the individual stories are included as well but these are not explored in enough depth to be useful to anyone other than those completely unacquainted with the bible. The author’s intention to “bridge the gap between ‘popular’ and ‘academic’ writing” is most successful in his introduction of lesser known imagery such as Joseph cooking for Mary at the Nativity (vii). He is less successful, however, at guiding the reader through his case studies in a way that feels organic or sustained. This would certainly be less problematic if the “Context and Conclusions” section at the end of the book (147) had been used to frame the case studies and introduce the significance of the scenes, rather than relying on the readers to piece it together for themselves.

Other sections were useful as introductions to lesser known parables. However, in many of them, we are left with the impression that the artworks are being regarded as little more than illustrations of stories and passages, rather than a means of exegesis or objects worthy of in-depth analysis. In shorter sections, the use of a single image to evidence one point—or stand in for all visual depictions of a certain topic—can also come across as simplistic or a mere appetizer with no entree to follow.

One theme that Kauffman revisits frequently is the relationship of depictions of food and feasting to the story of the Last Supper, demonstrating how Old Testament passages were illustrated as deliberate precursors to the meal while New Testament narratives were complimentary or parallel to it. While at first this seems a little off topic, the focus becomes clear in chapter 18 where Kauffman reveals that 72% of all images of biblical meals in Italy between 1250-1497 were of the Last Supper. Information such as this would have added more clarity to the purpose and overall argument of the book if it had been included much earlier on in the introduction.

Though the book is ambitious in scope and subject, it struggles to reach its objective, leaving the reader to wonder if they are learning about how food is depicted in the history of art, or whether the food in the images is historically accurate. This ambivalence may leave the reader's appetite rather unfulfilled.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Maryanne Saunders is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at King's College, London.

Date of Review: 
January 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

C.M. Kauffmann was Keeper of Prints & Drawings and Paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum and then Director of the Courtauld Institute and Professor of the History of Art, University of London. Among his publications are catalogues of paintings at the V & A and the Wellington Museum and also books and articles on medieval art, including Romanesque Manuscripts (1066-1190) and Biblical Imagery in Medieval England 700-1550.



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