Cooking vol. 4: Jesus of Nazareth (33 b.)

The founder of Christianity is not known as a gourmet. However, the Last Supper he instituted was to change gastronomy. From now on, with the claim to eat God himself, Christianity had the ultimate delicacy at hand. Food was now more than just a more or less successful meal, it decided salvation and damnation. This still shapes our ideas about food today.

5 mins read

Breaking with Jewish tradition

Samaritan Passover Sacrifice

The Jewish world has probably known Passover celebrations since the construction of the first Temple in Jerusalem, i.e. for almost 3,000 years. The communal celebration, which centred on the eating of a sacrificial lamb, was intended to commemorate the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Jesus of Nazareth celebrated Pessah with his disciples on the eve of his death, on the day Christians today call “Maundy Thursday”. The way Jesus prepared the Passover meal is only celebrated today by the small community of Samaritans. In Judaism, after the destruction of the Temple (70 AD), the ritual of the seder meal without animal sacrifice developed. In it each component of the meal is fixed and has a symbolic meaning. The lamb, the wine, the unleavened bread, the bitter herbs, a boiled egg and others.

“Fractio panis”-fresco in the Priscilla Catacomb in Rome from the 2nd century

But Jesus of Nazareth also fundamentally changed the Passover meal. After breaking the bread and distributing it to his disciples in the tradition of the Jewish householder, and after they had all tasted of the wine, he declared, “Take and eat: this is my body, which is given for you … This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many”. It is a pivotal moment for the history of Christianity. The communal meal, not only modelled on the Passover meal but also in the tradition of ancient symposia, becomes a central feature of the early Christian communities that the missionary disciples will found after the death and resurrection of Jesus. These “agape celebrations”, as the Acts of the Apostles testify, were by all means joyful. They stood in sharp contrast to the ascetic practice of the desert fathers of the early church.

From the Agape Celebration to Lord’s Supper

Christ as Eucharistic Saviour with host and chalice.

From the 2nd century onwards, the ritual of the Eucharist, in Luther’s translation the Lord’s Supper, with bread and wine, was separated from the sensual “satiation meal” and integrated into the Sunday service. Not least because its core message of eating God is actually a scandal, there have been considerable disputes in the history of Christianity about its meaning and concrete implementation. Not least over the questions of whether it would not be better to use water or grape juice instead of wine (and if so, then red or white wine, or even one without alcohol), whether lamb or fish (as in a number of early Christian depictions), whether leavened or unleavened bread (Orthodox and Reformed versus Catholics and Lutherans), the Church has split several times.

The Bread …

Jörg Breu the Elder: Scenes from the Life of St. Bernard, c. 1500.

For the history of the art of cooking, the Lord’s Supper brought two innovations, one direct and one indirect. On the one hand, by the time of the Carolingians at the latest, people began to think about the quality of the basic products of the Lord’s Supper. The idea that bread and wine not only symbolised God in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but were also essentially identical with him, gradually became more and more evident. It suggested that particularly good basic products should be selected for this purpose. And that they should be processed in a special quality and as purely as possible.

For the northern and central European states of the early Middle Ages, this meant that from 1170 onwards, hosts were no longer made from barley, which was common here, but exclusively from the more precious wheat. Because, as Petrus Comestor argued, barley was the food of the draught animals. That bread and wine had to be “absolutely pure” (“mundissimum”) had already been postulated by Alcuin, Charlemagne’s court theologian, in 798. No wonder that – although gluttony was considered a mortal sin – the monasteries were centres of immense agro-culinary knowledge until the French Revolution.

… and the wine

Monk tasting from the barrel, initial, late 13th century

In viticulture, for example. The commandment to make wine “naturally pure” and not to participate in the adulteration typical of the time has made church and monastic wineries throughout Europe beacons of wine quality since the early Middle Ages – from Clos Vougeot in Burgundy to Eberbach Monastery in the Rheingau. Cardinal de Bernis, for example, celebrated communion exclusively with the finest, unblended Meursault, because God should not grimace at the moment of communion. This ecclesiastical ethos still reverberates in the name of the first German winegrowers’ association concerned with quality wine, the “Verband Deutscher Naturweinversteigerer” of 1910.

Food as a spiritual healing

Farming in the spirit of the life reform on Monte Verità

The indirect effects were at least as weighty. For eating God changes people, they become what they eat. For believers, the almost alchemical promise of purification, transformation and redemption was paramount. At the latest since the beginning of the 19th century, the model of “communion” with God in the Lord’s Supper was joined or replaced by that of union with nature: since Rousseau and the life reformers of the 19th and 20th centuries, many people believe they can experience not only physical but also spiritual healing by eating the purest possible, unprocessed “natural food” such as raw food. Those who believe that such an attitude, for whom every refinement represents a corruption, means the opposite of culinary art, should be reminded that it was precisely the “Nouvelle Cuisine” that was primarily understood by its protagonists as a “Cuisine Naturelle”.

The two paths of following Christ

Joachim Beuckelaer: The Well-Equipped Kitchen. Antwerp, 1566. That this is a variation on the Jesus-Mary-Marta theme is clear from the scene in the background.

According to the life of Jesus and the biblical tradition, Christian doctrine has essentially declared moderation and even asceticism to be exemplary virtues. In the Bible itself, however, in the parable of Mary and Martha, there is also a second possibility of following Christ. Jesus visits the house of the two sisters several times. The Bible repeatedly points out how much effort Martha puts into this, while Mary listens to his teachings.

Jesus’ reaction is not clear. At first he prefers Mary’s attitude. But when, on the occasion of a second banquet in the house of the sisters, one of the disciples admonishes him that he would rather donate the money to the poor, he objects: “You always have the poor with you, but you don’t always have me with you.” The motif “Jesus in the house of Mary and Martha” will then give painters of the early modern period the opportunity to stage the sensuality of cuisine and food as never before.

The plate: Passover lamb

The rosemary on this leg of lamb probably does not correspond to the Orthodox rite.

Andrea Krogmann observed the preparation of a Passover lamb in the traditional rite among the Samaritans on Mount Gazirim. According to this, the traditional Passover meal provides for a “flawless, male, year-old lamb” for each family, which is slaughtered towards evening, cooked over the fire and hastily eaten. According to the biblical account of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, with the “shoes on the feet, the staff in the hand”.

During the procedure, the bled animals are carefully skinned and cleaned, and no bone is allowed to be damaged. “The hearts and other organs of the sacrificial animals go into the blazing fire of the main sacrificial fire; the animals themselves are salted and cooked, stuck on skewers, in fire pits resembling kilns, the opening of which is sealed with a wooden lid, herbs and clay. Only around midnight is the meat cooked, and each family gets its share. What has not been eaten by dawn is also burned – just as it says in the Bible.”

“Agnus Dei” by Francisco de Zurbarán, between 1635 and 1640
Image Rights

Featured image: Jacopo Bassano: The Last Supper (c. 1846). Galleria Borghese, Rome

Passover lambs: Deror_avi on Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, 25 April 2013.

Fractio panis: in the public domain

Jesus as Saviour of the Eucharist: Juan de Joanes, Spain after 1550. Vicente Juan Masip – The Yorck Project (2002) 10,000 Masterpieces of Painting (DVD-ROM), DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202.

Jörg Breu the Elder: St. Bernard’s Altar from the Collegiate Church in Zwettl. The Yorck Project (2002) 10,000 Masterpieces of Painting (DVD-ROM), DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202.

Monk tasting from the cask, initial, late 13th century In: Li livres dou santé by Aldobrandino of Siena. British Library manuscript Sloane 2435, f. 44v.

Monte Verità: Joseph Salomonson gardening on Monte Verità, photo c. 1903. author unknown.

Joachim Beuckelaer: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

“Agnus Dei”: Museo del Prado

Leg of lamb: Benoît Prieur (2016), Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain


Andrea Krogman: Blutige Erinnerung. Die Samaritaner schlachten noch Pessachlämmer. ,10th of Aprl, .2017

Jean-Pierre Poulain: Sociologie de l’alimentation. Paris 2002.

Anselm Schubert: Gott essen. Eine kulinarische Geschicht des Abendmahls. München 2018.

Sandra Sweeny Silver: Communion in the Early Church.

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