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Isaac and Rebekah

When Abraham was an old man and felt his last days come near, he saw it was necessary for his son to marry. Therefore he made the senior servant of his household swear to him that he would not choose a wife for Isaac from the Canaanites among whom they lived. Abraham asked the servant to go to their native land and to choose there a girl among their kinsfolk. But Abraham also did not want his son to go there himself for God had promised the land of Canaan to him and his descendants. Abraham wanted Isaac to stay in Canaan.

The servant Eleazar therefore took ten of Abraham’s camels, loaded them with gifts and departed for the city of Nahar in Aram Naharaim. The servant came with the camels to a well. He prayed to Yahweh to let a girl come and give them to drink. That would be the sign of God the servant would be waiting for. He had not finished speaking when Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah who was married to Abraham’s brother Nahor, came out with a pitcher on her shoulder. The girl was very beautiful and she was still a virgin G38 .

Eleazar ran up to her, asking for water from her pitcher. She granted wholeheartedly and also gave to drink to the camels. The servant observed her and when she had finished watering the camels he put a gold ring through her nose and put two bracelets on her arms. He asked who she was and when the servant heard that she was of Abraham’s kin he thanked God. The girl ran home. Her brother Laban saw the bracelets and ring. Laban ran to Eleazar and offered him shelter as well as room and fodder for the camels. While the servant was eating, he explained his story to Laban. He told Laban how his master had forced him on his way to seek a spouse for Isaac, how he had prayed to Yahweh for a sign and how exactly as he had wished Rebekah had come to the well. Laban and Bethuel then recognised Yahweh’ design. Eleazar stayed for the night and in the morning Eleazar, Laban and Bethuel asked Rebekah what she thought of the story. Rebekah accepted to go with Abraham’s servant to marry Isaac. The servant took Rebekah and departed.

Isaac had been living in the mountains. But he had left the well of Lohai Roi and he was at that time in the Negeb. He saw camels approaching. When Rebekah saw Isaac, she jumped down her camel and asked the servant who that man was. Eleazar answered, “This is my master”. Rebekah then took her veil and covered herself up.

Eleazar told the whole story to Isaac. Then, Isaac took Rebekah with him in his tent. He married her and made her his wife.

After the death of his wife Sarah, Abraham married Kuturah and this woman also bore him sons. But Abraham left all his possessions to Isaac. To the sons of his concubines he made grants but sent them away to the East, far from Isaac.

Landscape with Rebekah at the Well

Paul Bril (1554-1626). Pinacoteca Ambrosiana – Milan.

We can not leave this Book of Genesis without a painting of the Brabant artist Paul Bril. His ‘Landscape with Rebekah at the Well’ illustrates our proposition that the painters of the late fifteenth and of the seventeenth centuries used the stories of the first patriarchs mostly to depict landscapes. That is also the interest of Paul Bril’s picture. We see a vast landscape through the opening of a forest. On the left the vast trees grow high. They grow almost around the canvas at the top. On the right, the forest holds the ruins of ancient Roman temples and churches. The trees build an open oval and through this opening we are allowed to peer at a glorious light land that stretches out to a horizon where sky and earth merge. In this landscape converging lines merge to the middle point of the canvas. The light blue streaks coming together thus create a vanishing point that enhances the perspective effect of wide and far space. A weak sun on the right throws a diffuse brightness on the village. This village is only drawn with a round tower of an oriental temple or mosque-like structure. Such round temples remind of the Pantheon of Rome and thus of Roman antique towns.

The principle interest of Bril’s painting lies with the landscape, not just with the open space but also with the details of the forest, the trees and their marvellous foliage. These create an atmosphere of intimacy and of cosiness out of which our view escapes to the vast perspectives of a splendid, bright cosmos. The overgrown ruins in the forest from a romantic touch. Paul Bril made many views of nature that generate these feelings of intimacy, of romantic isolation and of a mysterious nature filled with a silent wonderful life. The Romantic painters of the nineteenth century could not add much to such views. The openness of the central downward perspective is offering a journey of light to the soul seeking spirituality. The soul rises to the skies, hovering over the lightened landscape.

The figures that Paul Bril added are a mere excuse for the landscape but they enhance the feelings of a pastoral life near forests where mystic ancient ruins attract the loving ones. The figures are small and painted in full length. In the centre Rebekah wearing a pitcher filled with water on her head in the oriental manner, arrives to the open land. She will leave the forest and go down to her father’s village. Another woman, a child and a dog in a small scene that may symbolise Rebekah’s future marriage and loyalty to Isaac accompany her. On the left is a separate scene, hidden in the woods, where we see a well and a source of water. In this other time Rebekah may be giving water to Eleazar. To the right then is Eleazar’s arriving armed party. This group travels with horses and camels.

Two men are seated in the foreground, arguing and drawing on the ground, pointing to Bethuel’s village. Rebekah is on her way to the village; she is descending from out of the forest, out of the darkness. In the far we see other small figures on their way on the road to the temple. All these details enhance the effect of the travel to the wondrous, ethereal end of a journey, of the soul’s journey to the brightness of transcending spirituality. These references to the soul’s aspirations in the picture must have attracted the admiration and seduced Paul Bril’s Maecenas, Cardinal Federico Borromeo. The picture was in his collection and it is now in the gallery the Cardinal founded in Milan, the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana.

Paul Bril (1554-1626) was born in Antwerp. Paul’s elder brother, Matthijs Bril (1550-1583) went very early to Rome to work there, around 1574, and Paul accompanied him merely twenty years old. Matthijs found work after some time at the decorations of the palace of Pope Gregorius XIII. The Pope was building from 1578 to 1580 the Torre dei Venti or ‘Tower of Winds’ in the Vatican. This tower was to serve for the Pope’s astronomer, the Dominican Friar Ignazio Danti (1536-1586). Danti had been working on the Julian Calendar. This calendar was deviating too much from the time position of the sun and the stars. The Torre dei Venti was to house the meridian instruments devised by Danti to calculate a calendar that better fitted the movement of the sun and stars. The tower had a ceiling with a picture of the star of the four directions of the earth. Matthijs Bril painted in fresco the decorations around this image of science. He terminated these already in 1581. Matthijs’ brother, Paul Bril, also entered into the service of Pope Gregorius. He decorated for instance the ceilings of the Sala degli Scrittori, the old hall of scriptures in the Vatican.

A patron of Paul Bril soon was of course Cardinal Federico Borromeo of Milan, who frequently travelled to Rome. Paul Bril was one of the first professors of the painters’ Accademia di San Luca, of which also Federico Borromeo was an official patron. This was in 1593, the year that also Jan Brueghel the elder was in Rome. The three lovers of landscapes, Paul Bril, Jan Brueghel and Federico Borromeo must have met. It may well have been Federico who talked with the Brabant-Flemish artists Paul and Jan about the spiritual quality of nature and on how contemplation of nature could lead the soul to a mystic elevation to Christ. These aspirations can be found in Paul Bril’s picture and both Jan and Paul must have been marvelled at how the learnt Cardinal of the church transcended their images into a design they had suspected but not attempted to show so clearly. Paul Bril did, in many pictures and he enchanted Federico Borromeo who had a collection of many of the best paintings of the artist. Paul Bril and Jan Brueghel were encouraged in their art. Paul Bril gave his ideas to his Roman pupil Tassi. We should not forget that one of the most gifted painters of mythological and mystic landscapes, a Frenchman that had also arrived in Rome to learn the art of Roman painting, Claude Gellée called Le Lorrain, was a pupil in his turn of this Tassi. Thus, generations of landscape painters in two such wide apart lands of Europe were linked.

Suite of Eleazar and Rebekah. Rebekah consents to follow Eleazar

Maarten De Vos (1532-1603). Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen – Rouen. Ca. 1560.

The city of Rouen ordered a painting of the story of Abraham’s servant, called Eleazar, and Rebekah. The commission was given to a young Flemish painter called Maarten De Vos (1532-1603) who had been a student in Antwerp of the renowned painter Frans Floris. De Vos had just returned from a long sojourn in Italy. He was not without credentials. He had worked for three years in Venice in the workshop of Tintoretto. He was a contemporary of Paul Bril and Jan Brueghel. The panels that De Vos made, six in all, were placed in a chapel of the church of Saint Patrice F9 .

Maarten De Vos painted the panels in the style of his masters, Frans Floris of Antwerp and Tintoretto of Venice, who were both Mannerists. De Vos worked with the joy and the love of decorum of Venice and with the buoyancy of Antwerp. The six panels are predominantly in the ochre and yellows of Tintoretto, but brighter and sharper colours appear. De Vos painted many figures, all in various attitudes as the Venetian artists did. He showed a main scene in each panel, usually featuring only two or three of the persons of the story. But around that main theme he spun a myriad of secondary narratives and many other figures of Bethuel’s household and of Eleazar’s suite that tell their own story. The gestures bring graceful, elegant fluid lines in the pictures as also Tintoretto used to prefer. De Vos painted with an obvious pleasure. He introduced many scenes in each panel so that the spectator never gets bored but always discovers new details. The viewer is tempted to search and discover and point a new detail out in surprise and delight.

Especially the scene of Rebekah telling her father Bethuel that she will follow Eleazar is well succeeded. Bethuel, Eleazar and Rebekah hold hands and seal the agreement. Bethuel’s robes are painted magnificently in red and golden hues. The draped golden robe is painted with much skill so as to bring volume in the picture. In order to underscore Bethuel’s position of head of the house, De Vos painted a solid dark background behind him. This is a style element that was common in many Dutch pictures. The darkness brings out splendidly the colours of Bethuel’s figure. Rebekah’s bodylines are sensually marked and curb, as Tintoretto liked. Her forms are marked through an almost transparent, light, silken gown. A red cloak floats around her shoulders, in answer to Bethuel’s red. Eleazar is painted in darker tones, indicating the servant of a lesser status and his role as a go-between. He is depicted in the middle.

In this picture also, many figures are around the three main characters. These personages all embrace. Thereby they heighten the general atmosphere of happiness in ostentatious emotion and sensibility. But the embraces are more than a mere outburst of pleasure. The embraces are sensual and arduous because it is men and women that eagerly clasp each other. De Vos anticipates the marriage with those scenes. He added camels loaded with the trunks and the camel drivers in the background so that there is a whole bustle of activity on the right where Bethuel’s household and Eleazar’s men fraternise. The figures are clothed in an oriental manner, but De Vos dressed them more or less as he liked. In some panels Eleazar wears the leather armour of a Roman soldier. By this the spectator forgets that the Bible story is a narrative of nomad desert tribes. Many details point to that in the Bible. Eleazar travels on camels, Rebekah wears veils and Eleazar puts a ring through her nose. De Vos conveniently uses some of these details where they added an oriental touch and he mixed Arab dresses and the fashion of his own time and he diligently discarded other details. Thus Bethuel wears oriental robes, but Rebekah is elegantly clothed as a wealthy Antwerp merchant’s daughter. And De Vos made a town scene with a house of bricks whereas Bethuel and Laban’s camp were probably tents.

De Vos varied colours in each panel. He used less Tintoretto’s and Veronese’ monumentality that might have been out of place in the more modest city of Rouen. He preserved Tintoretto and Frans Floris’ profusion of figures. The panel scenes are theatrical and the Mannerist explicit form dominates over feelings. Yet the picture is not devoid of emotions and De Vos’ naïve sensibility is depicted without complexes. This can be seen in the expressions of the three figures in the panel of Rebekah consenting to follow Eleazar. We are thus already in an evolution away from Mannerism and entering the Baroque period with its obvious enthusiasm. Maarten De Vos was a precursor of the great Baroque Antwerp artists among whom Pieter Paul Rubens.

Isaac and Rebekah

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-1674). The Royal Cabinet of Paintings, Mauritshuis – The Hague. 1665.

‘Isaac and Rebekah’ of Gerbrand van den Eeckhout shows the first encounter of the future spouses of our story of the Book of Genesis. Eleazar presents Rebekah to Isaac. The scene is not in the desert but in a wood and a marvellous green landscape unfolds in the far.

Eleazar holds Rebekah’s hand with his right hand and with his other presents the girl to Isaac. Eleazar is as young as Rebekah, though in the Bible he is called Abraham’s senior servant. We suspect a personal drama and a romantic love in the scene. The young Eleazar could not but have fallen in love with Rebekah himself. He presents the girl to Isaac in a rare act of self-denial. Eleazar renounces Rebekah in the pure respect for the elder Isaac, his master. He knows that a great race is in the making for the descendants of Isaac and Rebekah will own the land of Canaan. Yahweh chose Isaac to build a people, not Eleazar. Eleazar is only the servant and he can be nothing more. He has to withdraw in the shadows of the Bible history, the perfect servant. He is so much the servant that his name is not even mentioned in the Book of Genesis and he has to remain humbly in the background. There is no sweeter love or greater individual tragedy than love denied.

Van den Eeckhout makes it clear that Rebekah and Eleazar form a couple. These belong to each other. Rebekah looks at Isaac, but that look crosses over Eleazar. She looks tenderly at Eleazar and she has confidence in him, feels close, remains close and seeks his re-assurance. Eleazar also watches Rebekah with obvious tenderness. The painter has brought many details in the picture to show the understanding between Eleazar and Rebekah. The two figures are dressed alike, like Dutch citizens in the seventeenth century. Light falls from the left on the two, and only on them. This is a pair as they are centred apart in the exact middle of the canvas.

Then there is Isaac. He stands stiffly, still, patriarchal in all his dignity. He faces the couple but he looks intently at his future bride and now he discovers that the eyes of Rebekah and Isaac also cross. Isaac and Rebekah really face each other directly. In Rebekah’s eyes there is apprehension and fear. In Isaac’s eyes there is cold emotionless determination, a view we have discovered in many pictures of the patriarchs. Isaac’s descendants will come from a marriage of reason; there will be no love. Van den Eeckhout gives the love to Eleazar. So much proves also the rest of the Genesis stories of Isaac, for instance when Rebekah repeatedly conspires and sides with her son Jacob to deceive Isaac.

Van den Eeckhout may have had no idea on how people could be dressed in Isaac’s time. He might not have known what the Near East looked like in Biblical times. But he read his Bible well and cannot but have well grasped the stories of wandering shepherd tribes in the deserts of Canaan. He wanted to paint the scene, as his Dutch countrymen could naively understand it. He brought oriental details in his picture. There is a negro boy as Rubens could have drawn. There are camels in the scene, and Isaac wears the turban that many artists, as we have already seen in previously discussed pictures, associate with the East. The camel driver near the right of Eleazar wears a sunshine umbrella as was used in Indonesia by elephant drivers. Indonesia was becoming a Dutch colony in the seventeenth century.

The composition of the picture is clever. Eleazar and Rebekah are in full light in the middle. Isaac stands to the right, somewhat in the shadows. Yet, the line of the view of Rebekah goes to Isaac. Eleazar’s head is above that line, indicating his moral authority. The backgrounds on left and right are dark, although van den Eeckhout painted here many interesting details. Right and left backgrounds open to a landscape of soft hills and meadows. This gives the painting its space and epic character for the scene itself is in the intimacy of a forest clearing. The open landscape promises vast territories, the wealth and land of Isaac.

Van den Eeckhout added subtle symbols. A servant maid sets right the blue cloak of Rebekah. This gown resembles a long bridal veil and thus refers to the coming wedding. But the cloak is blue as the Virgin Mary’s maphorion, a sign of virginity and purity. A dog representing loyalty is near the maid so that the two symbols of the wedding are close. Directly behind Rebekah is an old woman with a parrot. That may be a sign of vanity and of the coming difficulties, pains and fights of marriage. Like the parrot Rebekah may become a nagging, unloving, hard and bickering wife who will more annoy Isaac than support him. This not so nice perspective looms for Rebekah and van den Eeckhout well understood the strong character of Rebekah from the Genesis story.

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout was a student of Rembrandt. He worked with the great master of Amsterdam from 1635 to 1640. This was just later than Govert Flinck of whom we will see a picture later and who may have been with Rembrandt from 1632 to 1635. We recognise Rembrandt’s style in the picture of ‘Isaac and Rebekah’, but Gerbrand van den Eeckhout had mastered his own style too. His picture dates from 1665. Rembrandt was still alive; he would die in 1669. But although the light-dark contrast and the theme is like many of Rembrandt’s pictures, van den Eeckhout brought sweetness and less immediate expression of emotion in his picture. The painting is less forceful than the Bible pictures of his master. Yet, van den Eeckhout made this painting with as much artistic skill as Rembrandt. Van den Eeckhout added subtle detail and composed the scene intelligently. His picture is more modest than Rembrandt’s images, but ‘Isaac and Rebekah’ is certainly a painting to respect and to admire. Van den Eeckhout understood the subtle ambiguity that many sensed in the story of Eleazar and Rebekah, the romantic theme that attracted many painters to this scene.

Van den Eeckhout was one of Rembrandt’s students with a rare, own vision. He borrowed style elements from his master, then developed his own colours in which he brought more bright tones than his master. Look at the beautiful touch of blue amidst the predominant brown and red tints. He painted all scenes in detail and liked to bring in the fine landscapes, to fill the background with the trees and foliage so luxuriously painted.

We forget sometimes what marvellous students and masters by their own right came from Rembrandt’s workshop. Govert Flinck, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Arent de Gelder, Gerard Dou, Nicolaes Maes all worked with the master of Amsterdam and developed their own character as their master really would have wanted to instil in them

Isaac blesses Jacob

Govert Flinck (1615-1660). Rijksmuseum – Amsterdam. 1638.

Rebekah was barren at first but Isaac prayed to Yahweh. Yahweh heard Isaac’s prayer and Rebekah conceived. While she was pregnant, the children inside her struggled so much that she consulted Yahweh. Yahweh said to her that there were two nations in her womb. The two children would be two rival peoples. And Yahweh predicted that one nation would have mastery over the other. The first child to be born was red, altogether like a hairy cloak. They named him Esau. His brother was born, grasping Esau’s heel. So they named him Jacob. Isaac was then sixty years old. Esau became a hunter, a man of the open country. Jacob was a quiet man. He stayed at home among the tents. Isaac preferred Esau because he had a taste for wild game. But Rebekah preferred Jacob G38 .

Once, Esau returned from the countryside exhausted. Jacob had cooked a stew. Esau asked for some of the stew. But Jacob said, “First give me your birthright in exchange”. Esau answered that he was at death’s door, so what good was a birthright to him then. So Esau gave his oath to Jacob and thus sold his birthright to Jacob. Then only did Jacob give some of the bread and the lentil stew to Esau. Esau didn’t care much for his birthright.

When Esau was forty years old he married Judith, daughter of Bieri the Hittite as well as Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite. Both these women were a bitter disappointment to Isaac and Rebekah.

When Isaac had grown old, his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see. One day he summoned Esau and asked him to take his weapons, his quiver and bow and to go hunt some game for him. Isaac asked Esau to make for him an appetising dish he liked and then Isaac would give Esau a special blessing before he died. Rebekah overheard what Isaac had promised.

Rebekah told Jacob to bring back to her two good kids of the flock. She would make from them a dish as Isaac liked. Jacob could bring the dish to Isaac and receive his blessing in Esau’s place. But Jacob saw a problem to this scheme. Esau was hairy. So if his father would touch him, he would feel that Jacob was cheating him and would curse him. But Rebekah answered, “The curse is on me then. Just fetch the kids.” So, Jacob went and took the kids. His mother made a delicious stew out of them. She took her elder son’s best clothes and put them on Jacob. She covered his arms and the smooth part of his neck with the skins of the kids.

Jacob went into the tent of Isaac. He brought the stew. Isaac was surprised for he heard the voice of Jacob but touched the arms of Esau. He did not recognise Jacob though, and as Jacob said this was Esau, Isaac’s first born, Isaac blessed him.

Soon after Esau arrived with game and made an appetising dish for his father Isaac. He entered Isaac’s tent and asked for his father’s blessing. Isaac was seized then with a violent trembling for he understood what Jacob had done. But the blessing had been given.

Isaac told Esau he had given his blessing to Jacob. On hearing his father’s words, Esau cried out loudly that Jacob had taken his birthright twice now. But Isaac did not want to bless Esau too. He told Esau that henceforth his home would be far from the richness of the earth and the dew of heaven. Esau would have to live by the sword and serve his brother. But Isaac also told that Esau could win his freedom and shake his yoke off his neck. Esau hated Jacob then. He cried out that as soon as Isaac had died he would kill Jacob. Rebekah overheard these words too. So she sent Jacob away to her brother Laban in Haran G38 .

Govert Flinck (1615-1660) was another pupil of Rembrandt, like Gerbrand van den Eeckhout. Flinck worked with Rembrandt in Amsterdam for three years from 1632 on. Flinck was older than Van den Eeckhout was. He was a painter who lacked Rembrandt’s power or who did not want to perpetuate his master’s very expressive style. His picture ‘Isaac blesses Jacob’ can be situated between Rembrandt’s force and van den Eeckhout’s subtlety. Govert Flinck painted less in light-dark contrasts of the Dutch Caravaggists and of his master. He less imitated Rembrandt as the great master’s last pupil, Arent de Gelder, and less even than Gerbrand van den Eeckhout. Govert Flinck’s colours are lighter and purer than Rembrandt’s, and the colours are more visible in separate surfaces. But Rembrandt’s influence is obvious in the theme.

The old, blind Isaac is weak. He is sitting in bed. A heavy red, rich cloak has been thrown over his shoulders to keep him warm. He is blessing Jacob with one hand. Isaac’s other hand is on Jacob’s hairy arm. Rebekah has covered Jacob’s arms and hands with the furs of the kids. Flinck remembered well the Bible scene. Isaac’s sight is gone. But Jacob’s eyes are very intent, sly and filled with fear at the same time. The tension in the air is heavy as Jacob and Rebekah try to deceive Isaac, but all remains still to be proven. Will the deception be a success or not? The tension is hard for the blessing has not yet been given. Isaac is on the brink of just touching Jacob’s head and gives him the eagerly awaited heritage of birthright. Much is at stake, for with the birthright will come the Promised Land of Canaan. Jacob presses his lips together and he brings his head forward to be nearer to his father, maybe afraid of the touch of Isaac’s hand to his head. In the back, on a plate, lie the stew and the drink that Rebekah prepared. Isaac cannot see through the deception and he will bless Jacob instead of Esau. Jacob is dressed in beautiful, bright clothes as Dutch wealthy dandies may have worn and a golden sword hangs by his side. This also is a sign of deception.

‘Isaac blessing Jacob’ is one of the best if not the best picture of Govert Flinck. Flinck made a strong composition. He used the diagonal of the canvas that rises over a detail of colourful cloth on the lower left, over Jacob to Isaac in the upper right. The highest head is of course Rebekah. She was the brain behind the deception. The colours of the bed cloth in the lower left repeat the blue of Jacob and the red of Isaac, but here these colours are intertwined. Like Rembrandt would have done, Flinck painted Jacob and Isaac in full light whereas Rebekah is already in the darker tones and rougher brushstrokes of the background. That background was kept frugal as Isaac’s tent probably was. Like Rembrandt, Flinck did not find it necessary for this scene, which is so strongly focused on the three characters, to detail a decoration behind. In this he and de Gelder followed Rembrandt’s style, whereas van den Eeckhout had more eye for the landscapes, was a marvellous landscape painter who filled the picture with more figures and more views of nature.

Maarten De Vos, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout and Govert Flinck painted Biblical scenes of the story of Isaac. They pictured their figures in contemporary clothes. They made very intent images, filled with tension, apprehension, fear, but also with bright expectancy. This was an optimistic century. Their main character was definitely Rebekah. These artists imagined themselves in their characters, in Eleazar and in Jacob. They saw themselves in young men, nicely dressed and well to do. Yet these were pure of hearth and well intentioned. The artists told the wonderful story of Isaac. They produced paintings of beauty and thereby showed each in his way the spirituality they had reached. The paintings were well reflected upon, earnest, true and honest. The artists intended to spread the spirituality of Yahweh’s design. Like Rembrandt they shied away from painting themes of Jesus’s life for too laden with mystery. The Bible with its straightforward themes appealed more to them. They found their own nature of humility better and more intimately in the first patriarchs. The return to the sources of the first Genesis stories was a Calvinist trait, in line with the stern religious atmosphere of the Dutch society of the seventeenth century. But the paintings also so very much mirror Dutch character, the humbleness and the solidity of the men that formed a new country and tore it away from Catholic Spain.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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