A Brief History of the Food Coma in Art

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Land of the Cockayne, (1526/1530–1569). Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There’s a very good reason gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. Eating and drinking are two of life’s greatest pleasures — our only problem seems to be not knowing when to stop. Of course, Thanksgiving wasn’t the first event in history that caused the unbutton-your-pants-at-the-table move (or, in the case of the Romans, loosening your robe) at the end of the night. Lucky for us, art history provides countless depictions of our descent into food-related madness. So, before you indulge in a tryptophan-fueled evening, let us walk you through a more vivid display of what your Thursday night with the family (or friends) has the potential to become.

Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii, before 79 AD. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

We’ll start, for the sake of brevity, with Bacchus, who was the Greco-Roman god of wine but also served as a spiritual metonym for feast and fortune. The naughtiest mementos of the Romans’ proclivity for debauchery existed in Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii. The villa is not only famous for its heavily sexualized imagery, but also for its food porn, which, as seen above, shows Bacchus passed out from his own overzealous consumption.

Then there’s the classic Land of Cockayne (1567) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Pay close attention to the man in red: Even then, he couldn’t keep his pants on. More important, he couldn’t even finish the turkey. Call this the first depiction of the leftover.

Frans Hals, Merrymakers at Shrovetide, 1582–1583. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

While eating with the Dutch is a formidable task, have you ever tried drinking with them? Frans Hals did, and his Merrymakers at Shrovetide (1616–17) famously became a touchstone for revelry in Western painting. Those meaty cheeks, flush from face-stuffing, have, not surprisingly, also been read as a metaphor for sex — but what’s probably most striking is just how much damn fun everyone seems to be having.

If you skip ahead a few hundred years (we said brief, didn’t we?), you’ll land in the 1960s, where you’ll find the apotheosis of gluttony in Otto Muehl, the Austrian actionist whose films were often banned by the state because they were seen as a threat to public safety and morality. As you can tell in Kardinal, Muehl is a menace — naked people are being flogged and splattered with condiments, animal intestines, milk, eggs, basically whatever food substances Muehl had handy. Grotesque, sure, but certainly a reflection of the mentality of excess that feasting conjures.

A classic example of Daniel Spoerri’s “Eat Art.” Credit: @ucantalwaysgetwhatuwant/Instagram Photo: ucantalwaysgetwhatuwant/Instagram

The feast adopts a more abstract perspective by the latter half of the 20th century with Daniel Spoerri, who was part of the Zero Group and has made some of our favorite depictions of a dinner table at the end of a meal. Take Assemblage, from 1992, which is part of Spoerri’s ongoing series “Eat Art,” and which comments on the connection between consumption and tastes. His work poses an important question: Is it life or is it art to consume all that food? We’ll leave that for you to contemplate while you’re incapacitated on the couch and deflecting questions from your creepy uncle.

A Brief History of the Food Coma in Art