Troy: Myth and Reality @ the British Museum

What Troy means to me

For me the Iliad will always be the greatest story ever told. The Christian story is hugely more rich and complicated and influential and subtle, but the tale of Troy is, for me, more true.

It is, for me, a description and investigation and celebration and commiseration of masculinity. It starts with two men fighting over a woman (Agamemnon and Achilles fall out over who should possess the slave girl Briseis, captured in a small Greek raid on an outlying Trojan temple), it climaxes in two tragic, avoidable deaths (Patroclus of the Greeks, Hector of the Trojans), and leads up to the most moving scene in all literature, when King Priam of Troy sneaks by night into the Greek camp and confronts Achilles in his tent, falling to his knees and weepingly imploring the mightiest warrior of the age to give him back the battered body of his dead son (Hector). And instead of slaughtering him on the spot and bringing the war to a swift end, Achilles also falls to his knees and both men weep unappeasable anguish at the loss of their beloved ones.

From a thousand years BC right up to the present day, how many parents and lovers have wept unassuageable tears of grief and anguish over the pointless deaths of their loved ones in pointless wars. That agony has been repeated over and over again hundreds of millions of times.

For me Achilles’ great scream of anguish when he learns that his lover Patroclus is dead and that it was he, Achilles, who sent him to his death, his huge superhuman cry of pain which rings out over the battlefield and brings the fighting to a terrified halt, is the cry of all men against a cruel, uncaring universe, the agony of realising we are our own worst enemies, the tormented howl of someone who has understood human nature to its bitterest depths.

The Iliad is truer than the Christian story because there is no redemption and no comfort anywhere. The human condition is endless conflict and the relentless death of the people we love most. Men are compelled to fight, they don’t know why, and then bewail the devastation they have caused and the lives they have pointlessly destroyed. Nothing changes and no-one can be saved. Syria. Yemen. Libya. Myanmar. Congo.

Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, Athenian amphora (530 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition

1. Long gallery of ancient artifacts

This epic blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum brings together over 300 objects to give a comprehensive overview of the myths and legends and long legacy surrounding the siege of Troy. It is, like most recent BM exhibitions, beautifully staged, with the wall of the long gallery painted black and evocatively decorated with archaic Greek patterns, while half way along the gallery the wooden ribs of enormous horse arch up over the visitor, obviously referencing the famous wooden horse.

Although it’s divided into lots of sections, Troy is essentially in two halves. The first, long narrow gallery displays umpteen red-figure vases, statues, sarcophagi, carved reliefs and so on from the era of the Athenian empire (5th century BC) onwards including and later Roman efforts, depicting numerous episodes from the long series of myths and legends connected with the epic story.

Roman sarcophagus lid including detail of the Trojan horse (late 2nd century AD) Photograph © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The curators increase the size of their subject matter by including the legends surrounding Odysseus and his ten-year-long journey back from the war to be reunited with his brave long-suffering wife Penelope. Homer’s Odyssey is very different in tone and subject matter from the Iliad. It is more full of fairy stories and legends about the Sirens or Calypso or the one-eyed Cyclops or Scylla and Charybdis.

And they also devote some sections to Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, which follows the adventures of Aeneas, a minor character in the Iliad, who is promoted by Virgil to become a semi-Odysseus in his own right, fleeing burning Troy to wander the Mediterranean, have a long love affair with Dido Queen of Carthage, before being compelled to fulfil his duty which is to sail to Italy and found the precursor of Rome.

Including Odysseus, Virgil and all their related stories in the exhibition gives the curators more subject matter but, in my purist eyes, weakens the impact of the Iliad material, the material solely about the war, which focuses on battle, conflict, male anger and destruction only.

There are informative sections about the Greek gods, the geography of the Homeric world, how the Romans co-opted the Greek legends for their own purposes, if you didn’t already know.

And then the first gallery comes to an end and you turn the corner and come back on yourself along a narrow gallery running parallel to the first one.

2. Archaeology and Schliemann

At this turning point is a section devoted to the excavations carried out on the coast of modern-day Turkey by a series of Victorian archaeologists, which climaxed in the German excavator Heinrich Schliemann who loudly claimed to have uncovered the true site of Troy in 1873.

Display of objects found by Schliemann at Troy along with books describing his excavations. Photo by the author

3. Troy in European art

And when you progress beyond Schliemann and turn the corner you discover that the second long corridor is – rather surprisingly – an art gallery.

If the first half of the exhibition shows how the legends of Troy were depicted in ancient Greek art and sculpture, this second gallery shows how the same legends were depicted by European artists from the Middle Ages onwards.

I enjoyed this second half more, partly because it was so unexpected. So, for example, there’s a section devoted to European literature on Troy which contains some marvellous medieval illuminated books. We see a copy of John Lydgate’s Troy Book (1420), learn that the first book printed in England by William Caxton was a translation of a French account of Troy. There are first editions of Chapman’s complete translation of Homer (1616), Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid (1697) and Pope’s translation of The Iliad (1715-20).

A page of a 1485 manuscript of Virgil’s works showing the wooden horse being taken into Troy, and Aeneas carrying his father on his back

But most of the space in the gallery is devoted to paintings, drawings and a handful of sculptures, of which the standout example is this masterpiece of sensuality by Filippo Albacini, a portrait of the wounded Achilles (apparently, the gilded arrow in the heel of this sculpture has been restored especially for this exhibition).

The Wounded Achilles (1825) by Filippo Albacini. Photograph © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth

But the main impression is of a long, narrow gallery space hung with lots of paintings and drawings and prints.

As well as surprise, another reason for enjoying this part of the exhibition more was that it was far less crowded: I arrived fifteen minutes after opening time but already the first, more archaeological half of the exhibition was packed with crowds of people shuffling very slowly past each red-figure vase and fragment of stone relief – and because the exhibit labels were at knee height almost all of them were completely unreadable, concealed by people packed as tight as commuters on a tube train.

By contrast, for the hour or more that I was there, the second half, the long gallery of paintings, stayed almost empty, with only a dozen or so people drifting through it – which meant that you could enjoy the paintings (or prints or drawings) and read the wall labels, at your leisure. Works on display include:

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

It’s amazing to learn that this is the first full-scale exhibition about Troy ever held in the UK. Among other treasures it features, at the very end, the gold jewelry Schliemann found buried deep in the ruins of the city he excavated on the Turkish coast and which he declared to the world must be the jewelry of Helen herself, a preposterous claim he sought to back up by getting his wife to pose for photos wearing them.

Sophia Schliemann wearing the ‘Jewels of Helen’ excavated by her husband, Heinrich Schliemann, in Hisarlik (photograph taken c. 1874)

Modern art interpretations

Right at the start of the show visitors are surprised by two big artifacts which are not at all historic, a vast painting, Vengeance of Achilles (1962) by American artist Cy Twombly and an assemblage of forty or so objects by British sculptor Anthony Caro which he titled The Trojan War.

Dominating the section about medieval manuscripts of Troy, rather jarringly some might feel, is a video screen showing an adaptation of Euripides’ play The Trojan Women acted by Syrian refugee women, whose wailing voices can be heard echoing across the second half of the exhibition.

And the show ends with a spectacular wall-sized creation of fluorescent tubes radiating out from a central point and named The Shield of Achilles by British artist Spencer Finch.

The Shield of Achilles by Spencer Finch (2019)

My point being that this is a very wide-ranging idea of what an exhibition about Troy should look and feel like, spilling out from the narrow fields of archaeology and ancient artifacts to encompass scores of works of European art, and even – as indicated here – up-to-the-minute contemporary art.

Feminist interpretations

The people who wrote the press release have just discovered that there are women (yes, women!) in this 3,000-year-old story, and are breathlessly excited to share this new discovery with us:

The cause of the Trojan War was a woman, Helen who was taken to Troy by Paris, This exhibition presents a chance to re-examine Helen, not just as a beautiful victim or a feared seductress, but as her own woman.

Artist Eleanor Antin (b. 1935) explores history and its characters as a way to examine issues in the present. In 2007 Antin created the photographic series Helen’s Odyssey. Here, Helen of Troy is allowed to speak for herself in a series of imagined scenes from her life. This exhibition will feature Judgment of Paris (after Rubens) – Dark Helen from this series, where Helen is pictured looking unhappy to be used as a bribe, prompting visitors to re-examine the representations of Helen that have gone before.

Judgement of Paris (after Reubens) – Dark/Light Helen by Eleanor Antin (2007)

And the wall label introducing the section on ‘Women of the Trojan War’ shares their discovery that:

Helen and other women play central roles in the story of Troy.

Helen is a pawn in a divine quarrel. Iphigeneia is sacrificed for a fair wind to Troy. Cassandra and the other surviving Trojan women are enslaved when Troy falls. Queen Clytemnestra acts fearlessly in taking revenge on Agamemnon, but pays for it with her life.

Unusual in having a happier ending, Helen has fascinated artists through the ages. Many have attempted to capture her irresistible beauty, while questioning whether she is an innocent victim or knowing seductress.

It’s no surprise that the curators disapprove of the whole idea of the Judgement of Paris, the first ever beauty parade. As the introduction to the feminist section laconically points out:

Even the powerful goddesses are subject to male judgement.

Yes, but you could also point out that the goddesses murder and doom men for their sport. But that central element of the story doesn’t fit the feminist women-are-always-victims paradigm and so is glossed over in preference for yet another condemnation of the male gaze. If only all men were blinded like Oedipus, what a better place the world would be for feminist academics 🙂

BP

Meanwhile, the exhibition is sponsored by BP, one of the world’s biggest producers and refiners of fossil fuels, the burning of which is propelling the earth and all its life forms towards a global warming disaster.

To me it is typical and symptomatic that a handful of fine art paintings of an ancient Greek myth get feminist curators and artists hot and bothered enough to criticise them and parody them – but destroying the planet and exterminating all the life forms on it… they’re happy to go along with that. After all, the profits from poisoning the planet pay their wages and sponsor their exhibitions.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

The Art of the Northern Renaissance by Craig Harbison (1995)

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

‘Northern’ means north-west of the Alps, excluding Eastern Europe which had its own development, and Spain, ditto. So it includes the many different little German medieval states, France, but especially the northern part of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium). In these rich northern cities the wealth from the wool and textile trade created patrons who wanted paintings of themselves, decorations for their houses, but especially grand altarpieces for the big churches they built.

The Renaissance in Italy was closely linked to a rebirth of interest in classical statuary, architecture and literature, examples of which lay all around its Italian artists. This revival of learning led to new experiments in building in the pure classical style, to the introduction of mathematically precise perspective in painting, along with unprecedented anatomical accuracy in the human form. The paintings, like the architecture, were big, grand, monumental. At its peak, think of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Many Renaissance paintings are vast and use classical architectural features to emphasise their monumentality and to bring out the artist’s clever knowledge of perspective. I often find this art sterile.

By contrast, northern art is more continuous with the medieval art which preceded it. Curly Gothic architecture continues to provide its frame of reference and design. The figures often still have the elongated, willowy S-shape of medieval statuary rather than the new, muscular bodies being pioneered in Italy by the likes of Michelangelo et al. Harbison says that northern art of the 15th century is in many ways a transfer of late-medieval innovations in manuscript illustration to the public spaces of altarpieces, painted boards and frescos.

What I love northern art for is:

  1. its more flattened, less perspective-obsessed images allow for the surface of the work to be covered by gorgeous decorative schemes, particularly sumptuous fabrics and carpets
  2. it is always teeming with life – there are always tiny figures in the distance riding into a wood or firing a crossbow – every time you look you notice something else
  3. the faces – the people in northern art have much more rugged individuality than in Italian art – another way of saying this is that they are often plain and sometimes positively ugly in a way few Renaissance portraits are

As an example of gorgeousness of decorative design, I suggest Virgin among virgins in the rose garden by the unknown artist known from one of his other works as the Master of the St Lucy Legend.

There’s perspective of a sort, in that the wooden pergola covered with climbing roses creates a proscenium arch through which we can see an idealised version of the city of Bruges in the middle distance. But the overall affect of the foreground is more flat than in an Italian work. This brings out the wonderful detail of every leaf and petal of the dense rose hedge behind the characters; and emphasises the decorative layout of those figures, two on either side of the Virgin and in similar poses but with enough variation to please the eye. It allows the eye to rest on the sumptuous gold dress of St Ursula sitting left and contrast it with the plain white dress of St Cecilia sitting right. As to my ‘teeming with life’ point, I love the tiny figures of the two horse riders departing the city in the distance. In this work, I admit, the faces lack the individuality I mentioned, but I like this kind of demure medieval oval facial style.

Harbison contrasts this northern work with a contemporary Italian work, Madonna and child with saints by Domenico Veneziano (c.1445)

For me, all the human figures are dwarfed and subordinated to the ruthless application of the new knowledge of mathematical perspective. I find all those interlocking pillars and arches exhausting. And, ironically, somehow for me this does not give the image the desired depth of field but makes it appear flat and cluttered. The orange trees peeping up over the back wall don’t make up for the clinical sterility of the architectural setting. And although the human figures are obviously individualised and their clothes, the folds of their cloaks and gowns, are done with fine accuracy, these aren’t enough to overcome what I see as the overall flat, arid, washed-out and sterile effect.

As Harbison puts it:

In place of the clear, open, even and often symmetrical Italian representation, northerners envisioned subtly modulated, veiling and revealing light effects, intriguing nooks and crannies, enclosed worlds of privacy and preciousness. (p.35)

As an exemplar of this Harbison gives Rogier van der Weyden’s wonderful three-part St John Altarpiece (1450-60).

The dominant feature in all three scenes in this altarpiece is obviously the Gothic arch. (These repay study by themselves, with a different set of saints and small scenes depicted on each of the three arches.) The three main scenes depict, from left to right, the presentation of the newborn John the Baptist to his father; John the Baptist baptising Jesus; and then John’s head being chopped off and given to Salome.

The figures are given quite a lot of individuation, especially the balding executioner with his stockings half fallen down which gives a bizarrely homely touch. But the foreground scenes are really only part of the composition. Equal emphasis is given to the detailed backgrounds of all three. Perspective is used, but not ruthlessly – with enough poetic license to allow the backgrounds to be raised, tilted upwards, so we can see and savour them better.

In the left panel St Elizabeth being tucked into bed (a typically homely northern detail) is good, but better is the deep landscape behind Jesus in the central panel, with its church perched on cliffs on the right in the middle distance and city on a cliff in the remote distance left. But best of all is the right-hand panel, where our eye is drawn by the steps and tiled floors of King Herod’s palace, complete with a lounger staring out a window, a bored dog lying near the table where courtiers appear to be feasting.

And, as always, at the very bottom, in the corners, the humble, everyday, weedy flowers of northern Europe which I love so much.

The St John Altarpiece is a prime example of the richness of detail which characterises northern art and makes it – to me – so much more enjoyable, homely, decorative and domestic – funny, even, with its wealth of humanist touches.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

  1. Realism
  2. Physical production & original location
  3. Religious behaviour and ideals
  4. Italy and the North.

Within these there are 35 separate sections addressing issues like ‘artist and patron’, ‘manuscript illumination’, ‘the production of a panel painting’, ‘the pilgrimage’, ‘landscape imagery’, ‘the naked body’, and so on. From these sections we we learn lots of detail about specific areas of medieval life and their depiction, but nothing which affects the basic thesis that at the core of northern art is, as Harbison puts it, ‘a love of detailed description’.

It is as if one is always catching sight of something out of the corner of the eye. The ideal is not simple harmony but complex polyphony. (p.39)

Northern art is fragmentary, interested in detail. Italian art is more unified, classical and spare. Take this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

For a start it was a north European convention to depict the Deposition within an architectural frame (cf. The descent from the cross by the Master of the Bartholomew altarpiece) which gives it a kind of continuity with the Gothic architecture of the church where it is located.

I love everything about this painting, the cleverness with which ten human figures are composed so as to make a polyphony without excessive artifice; the colour of the clothes e.g. the olive green and high cord of the woman holding the fainting Mary, the sumptuous fur-lined cloak of the rich burgher (Nicodemus) on the right. Harbison points out the detail of Christ’s pierced bloody hand hanging parallel to the Virgin’s long white hand, providing a powerful and moving real and symbolic contrast.

And, as always, I love the flowers in the foreground – is that yarrow at bottom left and herb bennet at bottom right? Harbison gives a detailed analysis of another northern masterpiece:

The detail of daily life, the sense of real people in an actual community, is what I love about this art: the unashamed flat-faced ugliness of the three shepherds, the (married?) couple standing by the gate in the background beside the shepherds; the wrinkled face and hands of old Joseph praying on the left.

As always, flowers in the foreground, here the highly symbolic lilies and irises (symbolising the passion), columbine (representing the Holy Spirit) and three small dark red carnations symbolising the nails of the cross.

Harbison makes the interesting point that the shadows of the two vases fall sharply to the right as if the floor of the stable (incongruously tiled) is almost flat; whereas, somehow behind the sheaf of wheat the floor suddenly tips upwards, presenting a much more flattened surface than strict perspective would suggest – which is then ‘decorated’ with the various figures. There are perspective points in it, but the painting ignores a strict rule of perspective in order to create a more effective, colourful and ‘rhythmic’ composition.

Top artists of the northern renaissance

If I summarised every one of Harbison’s analyses this post would be as long as the book. Instead here’s a quick overview of the key players and some major works:

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

From the generation following the deaths of these early fathers of Netherlands painting comes the one-off genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

  • Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) The religious triptych was the most common format of painting in this period, and Bosch produced at least sixteen, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments. The most famous is the weird and wonderful Garden of earthly delights. No one has adequately explained where his bizarre fantasies came from.

The Germans

I find the Germans a lot less pleasing than the Flemish or French painters of this period. They lack grace and delicacy. Their depictions of the human body, especially of the crucified Christ, seem to me unnecessarily brutal. Albrecht Dürer is meant to be the great genius but I like hardly anything that he did.

After the Reformation

The Reformation forms a watershed halfway through the period 1400 to 1600, usually dated with great specificness to 31 October 1517, when the monk Martin Luther sent 95 theses systematically attacking Roman Catholic theology to his superior, the archbishop of Mainz. His arguments became a rallying cry and focus of decades of growing discontent with the corruption and over-complex theology of the Catholic church. His ideas spread quickly and were taken up by other theologians, who were often protected by German princes who had their own secular reasons for rejecting Papal authority, until it had become an unstoppable theological and social movement.

In artistic terms the Reformation’s rejection of the grandeur of Roman Catholic theology and the authority of the super-rich Papacy played to the strengths of the northern artists, who already produced an art often characterised by its relative smallness and intimacy.

Harbison very usefully brings out the fact that fifteenth century art was so dominated by images of the Madonna seated holding the Christ child because such a static image encouraged silent devotion and meditation – in contrast with the more dynamic and emotionally upsetting images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

He points out how the corruption of the official church had already alienated many Christians from public worship and created through the 15th century a cult of private devotion. It was onto this fertile ground that the anti-establishment teachings of Luther and his followers fell, and proved so fruitful.

Thus Reformation theology tended to foreground personal piety, meditation and reflection – moving away from bravura displays of big ostentatious public ritual. And so while the Counter-Reformation in Italy (the theological and artistic reaction against the northern Reformation) was marked by the increasing ornateness and vast, heavy, luxury of the Baroque in art and architecture, in northern Europe – although Christian subjects continued as ever – there was also a growth in depictions of ‘ordinary life’, in domestic portraits and still lifes.

It was during the post-Reformation 16th century that landscapes and still lifes came into existence as genres in their own right.

Quentin Matsys

A figure who straddles the pre- and post-Reformation era is Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) (also spelt Massys) founder of the Antwerp school of painting. His mature work dates from the period of the High Renaissance (1490s to 1527) but is the extreme opposite of the vast panoramas of human history being painted in the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanza). Instead, Massys typifies for me the virtues of northern painting, with its small-scale atmosphere of domesticity, its focus on real, living people – not the Prophets and Philosophers of Michelangelo and Raphael – and its portraits not of heroic archetypes, but of plain ordinary and, sometimes, ugly people.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This increasing valuing of secular life is one way of explaining the rise of the genre of ‘peasant paintings’, which was, apparently, more or less founded by the teeming peasant panoramas of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Hans Holbein the younger

The northern Reformation was suspicious of religious imagery. In many places it was stripped out of churches and burned; in others merely covered up. Certainly the market for grand altarpieces collapsed, and the period saw a rise in other more specialised subjects. Critics from centuries later define these as genre paintings.

Portraits also became more secular and more frequent, a trend which produced one of the most wonderful portraitists of all time, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Technique

Harbison explains a lot about the technicality of northern Renaissance painting. Some of the most notable learnings for me were:

Panel painting Almost all northern renaissance artworks were painted on wooden panels, ‘panel paintings’ as they’re called. It wasn’t until the 17th century that prepared canvas became the surface of choice for artists. Some works were painted on linen but almost all of these have been lost. A small number were painted directly onto metal and some onto slate.

The rise of oil painting Most 15th century paintings were made with tempera. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. But as the 1400s progressed, northern artists experimented with using oil as the binding material – first mixing colour pigment with oil then applying it to prepared surfaces.

Most of these new ‘oil’ paintings were built up from multiple layers. This required paintings to be put to one side for weeks at a time to fully dry before the next level could be done – a repetitive process which explains the incredibly deep, rich and luminous colours you see in these works.

Most Renaissance sources credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the ‘invention’ of painting with oil media on wood panel supports (‘support’ is the technical term for the underlying backing of a painting). There is ongoing debate about where precisely it originated but it was definitely a northern invention which headed south into Italy.

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

  • Much of it was created for ephemeral purposes in the first place – for ceremonies, processions, pageants or plays – and thrown away once the occasion had passed.
  • Thus, much effort and creativity was expended painting on fabrics, such as linen or flags, on backdrops and sets and panels, which have rotted and disappeared.
  • Huge numbers of paintings in the churches of northern Europe were lost forever when they were painted over with whitewash during the Reformation. Outbreaks of popular or state-sanctioned iconoclasm also saw the systematic destruction of statues, wooden tracery and decorative features – all defaced or thrown out and burned in the decades after 1520.
  • Successive wars wreaked local havoc, destroying in particular castles which would have held collections of art sponsored by rich aristocrats. As an example, only ten paintings and thirty-five drawings survive of the entire life’s work of Matthias Grünewald – ‘many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty’.
  • The destruction of the Great War – epitomised by the German army’s deliberate burning of the manuscript library at Louvain – was essentially localised to north-west Europe.
  • But the destruction of the second World War ranged all across Europe, deep into Russia and involved the destruction of countless churches, galleries, museums, libraries, stately homes, castles and chateaux where art works could be stored. Dresden. Hamburg. Monte Cassino. The loss was immense.

It’s always worth remembering that the comfortable lives we live now actually take place amid the ruins of an almost incomprehensibly destructive series of wars, religious spasms and conflagrations, and that the art we view in the hushed environments of art galleries is not an accurate reflection of what was painted and created in Europe, but are the scattered remnants and lucky survivors from a continent of incessant destruction and artistic holocaust.

Related links

Where to see some

You can see some masterpieces from this period for free in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (in London):

You can see the fabulous Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in room 1 of the Courtauld Gallery, off the Strand, which currently costs £7 admission price, but is worth it for the stunning collection of masterpieces from these medieval pieces through the French post-Impressionists.

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