Rhythms of Triplism: The Triple Figures of Romano-Celtic Sculpture

The Three who are over me,
The Three who are below me,
The Three who are above me here,
The Three who are in the earth
The Three who are in the air,
The Three who are in the heaven,
The Three who are in the great pouring sea.
–from  the Carmina Gadelica (Sheldrake 80)

Above, below and in the great pouring sea, these Three occur throughout nature, throughout this Celtic culture.  The Three who are in the Celtic stone reliefs convey these triadic ideals of a unified visual vocabulary, a consistent narrative and a singular spirituality, seen in nature, revealed in their art.  The frequency of the number three as an aesthetic and spiritual structure signifies, through the figures present in art and myth, a correlation between the number three and fertility, protection, and sanctity in nature. In early Celtic Art the human head often appears in a triad, seen in the Glauberg Torc and the Rouillerot Torc, to comprise the decoration, to prefigure the narrative compositions of divine figures in the Romano-Celtic period, and eventually to influence Welsh and Irish literature.

The significant use of the triad in Celtic art and later literature followed the Celts through their conversion to Christianity as represented in the Christian Trinity.  The pattern of the triad exists as a multifaceted entity, reflecting the ornamentation, mythology, the familial paradigm, as well as the conversion of the Celtic lands to Christianity.  Artistic use of the  number three binds a unified aesthetic, creates a visual language in which the ideas transfer readily from the object to the viewer, to the Celtic worshipper.  As a conveyor of this mystical number, the figures in the stone relief sculptures transcend their shallow stone stages to visually unify Celtic art, language, myth and religion at a time of Roman influence.

In the Romano-Celtic period, from approximately the first to the third century CE, a sculptural style of stone bas relief emerges and combines the Roman emphasis on depicting the body with the Celtic interest in abstraction, simplification, and triplism.  The resulting work retains a clearly Celtic aesthetic and poses a specific understanding of the composition of three similar figures positioned horizontally in a shallow relief space.  Sculptures of the Three Water Nymphs, Genii Cucullati, and The Three Mothers all derive their structure from the prominent sanctity of the number three.   Just as the Celtic three-legged whirl depends on the three arched lines to symbolize a center of energy and sense of regeneration, the depiction of gods and goddesses in groups of three increases their potency, creates a structured energy moving from figure to figure and on to the viewer.

Veiled with myth and narrative, the three-figure relief sculptures function as spiritual storytellers or a band of actors upon this stone proscenium.  The sculptures of gods and goddesses derive their potency from their association with certain myths, attributes and association with natural elements, in addition to their occurrence in triplicate.  Both found in holy wells, the Trio of Fertility Goddesses, a stone relief from Germany, and the Three Water Nymphs, discovered in Coventina’s Well, convey the centrality of water in the Celtic religion and the transformation of this belief in river goddesses into figural, identifiable sculpture.    The Three Water Nymphs, dedicated to Coventina, a water goddess, appear to be representative of this water and to be shape-shifting, undergoing a metamorphosis.  Long hair streams down the sides of their bodies, seamlessly merging with the folds of their gowns and mirrors the flow of water from their urns.  The human features of their figures melt and become water-forms, or the rivers themselves.   The Trio of Fertility Goddesses found in the well in Germany resembles the mysticism of a well in Ireland called Tobar na mBan Naomh, "well of the holy women."  These holy women are thought to be three sisters from this region near Teelin Bay who all entered into a convent as nuns.  Fishermen used to pray to this well and gatherings occurred here during the night of the eve of the Summer Solstice (Low 67).  The wells once dedicated to these triple deities accommodated the arrival of Christianity and simply modified the worship of a Celtic triad to revere the Holy Trinity.

The river goddesses often have a dual function as mother goddesses. This is exemplified by Matrono, the mother figure in the divine family, as represented in The Family Group relief.  Matrono serves as the eponymous goddess of the River Marne in France.  Teyrnon (the Divine Lord) and Mabon (the Divine Son) comprise the remainder of Matrono’s family.  In one account in Irish mythology Boand represents the River Boyne and is the mother to Mac ind Og “The Young Son” and wife to the Divine Father Daghdha or "Good God."  A poem from the The Metrical Dindshenchas tells of a different story of Boand’s death after an adulterous tryst with the Dagda while she is married to Nechtan.

                                                           Hither came on a day white Boand
                                                           (her noble pride uplifted her)
                                                           to the never-failing well
                                                           to make trial of its power.

                                                           As thrice she walked around
                                                           about the well heedlessly
                                                           three waves burst from it
                                                           whence came the death of Boand … (Low 70).

The power of the well drowns Boand, punishes her for her adulterous sin, yet transforms her into the river goddess.  The sacredness of the well is manifest in the three waves and the thrice walk around.  This number three repeats endlessly as the sole key to the mysticism, godliness, and supernatural power.  The family dynamic and genealogy of the gods remains central in these myths, as land forms and bodies of water become personified and find their lineage in the landscape, alongside the Celtic people.  Nature integrates itself into Celtic society and establishes a familial and mystical paradigm based consistently on the number three.

Beyond water, fertility and mother imagery, three-figure relief sculptures depict warrior imagery as well.  With attributes of battle, the Triple Mars relief conforms to the warrior conventions of his Graeco-Roman origins.  A popular Romano-Celtic and Graeco-Roman deity, Mars is most frequently depicted in both Roman and Celtic art as a singular figure.  This singularity appears here as a triple unity, as this one figure repeats by three.  Under Celtic influence Mars also functions as a god of healing, as in Trier, Germany, where a healing cult of Mars Lenus existed or is depicted with a cornucopia and references "bucolic well-being" (Green 45).   Regardless of his role, the triplication of Mars deviates from Roman origin and engages in dialogue with the other Celtic gods and goddesses dependent on this triadic depiction for the potency of the image. Mars represents, like the Genii Cuclatti, a male connection with fertility, abundance and association with the land, as Henig affirms, "Despite his helmet, armour and spear he must have been venerated as a fertility god" (Henig 51).   In Britain, twenty-one local Celtic gods have been paired with Mars and are often associated with "places, river junctions and sacred woods," and become reminders of this specifically Celtic interconnection among the land, the deities, and the number three in representing the bind between the former two (Hutton 211).

Triple Mars compares thematically and stylistically to the stone relief from the fort of Croy Hill on the Antonine Wall, depicting Three Legionary Soldiers.  Again, using a visual Celtic vocabulary for the depiction of fabric and figures,  the three figures do not stray from the accustomed frontal, almost two dimensional Celtic stance.   Rather than depicting a Roman deity, this relief portrays members of the Roman army.  The legionaries, the majority of which were from Italy, southern Spain and France, upheld the strength and far reaching influence of the Roman empire in Britain in the first century CE (Potter 36).   A correlation ensues between the similarities of a Roman warrior god and a Roman warrior.  The heads of the warriors are enlarged and the faces simplified and abstracted in the Celtic aesthetic.  Although the figure in the center is clearly male and distinguished by his beard, warriorhood was not limited to the male sex.  In mythic literature, Irish war goddesses of the Ulster Cycle, such as Morrigan, Macha and Badbh challenge the notion of gender roles and continue this theme of triplism as each goddess maintains a triple identity (Green 149).

As the visual link among these releif sculptures, the number three comprises the structure and language through which these figures engage in dialogue and reveal the spiritual, supernatural significance of this number.  This repetition of threes becomes a rhythmic chant, a visual pattern, a predictable pulse seen in the Three Mothers, Three Soldiers and experienced in the three walks around a well dedicated to the triple deity.  The Clay Triple Vase, as a devotional object, symbolizes the attributes of or the ritual for the figurative sculptures, the groups of three gods or goddesses.  The pots bear flat, open lips, an aesthetic invitation to fill these pots with a substance of consecration, possibly the water or milk flowing from the Water Nymphs or Mother Goddesses.  Resting on a ring-base, the three spherical pots form both a triangualr and circular shape.  These two sanctified geometrical elements, the circle and the number three, represent in art and ritual the power, perfection and energy of a deified, specifically Celtic notion of nature and aesthetic design.

 *Selected  Bibliography



Rhythms of Triplism: The Exhibition Catalogue

 
                                     

The Three Mothers
Cotswold stone
height 2’7", width 2’1"

found in Cirencester, Gloustershire, England

ca. 2nd – 3rd century CE

Corinium Museum, Cirencester
Photo after Toynbee, pl. 84

 

Seated in a space framed architecturally by a pointed gable, three women offer trays of bread and fruits. Despite the slight differences in cloaks and hairstyles, the repetitions of folds and forms suggests a rhythmic monotony in the work.  The use of three figures rather than one, or representative of one, reinforces this overabundance of fertility and nourishment attributed to these Mother Goddesses.  The woman on the left holds three oblong loaves, the woman on the right three round fruits or rolls; the attributes on their laps, then, both symbolize and heighten the nature of their roles.  Digested through the viewer’s eyes, these Mothers provide sustenance aesthetically, physically and spiritually.  Linked to the earth, known as fertility goddesses, and most frequently seen in triads, these Mothers become metaphors, vehicles for supernatural protection and a Celtic connection to the earth.   According to Toynbee’s analysis of this relief, the folds of fabric hanging between the women’s legs are "worked into the shape of a water-beast, of which the head, narrow body, and spreading fish tail are clearly discernable.  This recalls the Syrian Fertility and Mother Goddess, Atargatis Derketo, whose symbol is a fish."  Although this detail more subtly appears than the prominent baskets of food, the connection between fertility, motherhood, and the characteristics of spritually ordained goddesses are nonetheless apparent.
   



Three Water Nymphs
Stone relief sculpture
Found in Coventina’s Well, Carrawburgh, near Hadrian’s Wall, England
2-3rd c. CE
Chester’s Museum
20 in. height
Photo after Toynbee, pl. 70

Within three rounded arches, separated by Doric-style columns, three bare-breasted water nymphs recline like mermaids beneath this classically Greek architecture.  Long hair streams down the sides of their bodies, seamlessly merges with the folds of their gowns and mirrors the flow of water from their urns.  This steady flowing rhythm mimics the triune repetition of the three similar figures; each figure holds two vessels in almost a mimetic posture to the other two.  Despite the seemingly exaggerated sense of order and recurring use if this triadic structure, the relief reveals a characteristically Celtic asymmetric composition.  The figures, although remarkably alike, differ slightly according to the shape of their heads, size of their pots, and direction of their streaming hair, drapery, and water.   Linear, stylized folds, almond-shaped forms for the eyes, and simple triangles for the noses, the figures bodies appear as extensions of the smooth curves and straight lines of the architectural framework.  The water nymphs’ abstracted and geometrical facial features allude to a definitely Celtic style in contrast to the architectural classicism and possible subject matter.

Toynbee categorizes this sculpture as belonging to a set depicting Graeco-Roman deities as opposed to Oriental or Celtic gods (Toynbee 153).  Although Toynbee states that this triad is "classical in deviation," the notion of water nymphs, or river goddesses, appears frequently in Celtic mythology and literature.   The three water nymphs almost appear to be shapeshifting, undergoing a metamorphosis from woman to water; the human features of their figures melt into and become personifications of the rivers themselves.  These river goddesses often have a dual function as mother goddesses, exemplified in the discussion of Matrono from The Family Group relief (second catalogue entry).   Matrono serves as both a divine mother and the goddess of the river Marne in France.  Frequently occurring in a triad, as well, the mother goddesses epitomize both the sacrality of the river and the number three, as in the relief of The Three Mothers.   Miranda Green asserts, "A direct counterpart to the Celtic mother-goddess is not found in the Graeco-Roman world," and removes Toynbee’s categorization farther from full legitimacy (Green 51).    The water nymphs, conclusively, express a distinct sense of Celticism in form, function, and fit specifically in this common genre of triadic figural relief sculpture form the Romano-Celtic period.
 
 

Trio of Fertility Goddesses
stone relief sculpture
2-3 c. CE (?)
found in Mumling-Grumbach, Germany
Collection Odenwald, Germany

Situated similarly to The Three Mothers, the Three Goddesses sit in an architectural space, a room with a pointed gable.  Their attributes are barely discernible; however, taken in tandem with the Three Mothers, these women possibly held cornucopia, fruit or loaves upon their laps.  Despite this lack of clarity to their props, the mere presence of three women seated in a horizontal row portrays an abundance of femininity, sanctity and fertile prowess understood through this triplication of figures.  Found near a holy well, these figures become the patronesses of this well, of water.  The relief, then, takes on the presence of a devotional object and assumes an apotropaic function.  The folds of their gowns illustrate a more Roman or classical interpretation of the human body, in contrast to the stylized linearity of the figures in the Family Group.  The rounded plate of hair or veil reads like a halo and leads to a visual comparison to depictions of the enthroned Virgin Mary centuries later.  Although not represnting the Virgin, these Goddesses are nonetheless enthroned and convey a sense of regalia amongst the ripples of their drapery.  A possible precursor to the Virgin or the Three Marys, the Trio of Fertility Goddesses supercede these biblical allusions to confirm this clearly Celtic characteristic of triplism.

Family Group
Stone relief sculpture
found in Germany
2-3 c. CE
Colmar, Interlinden Museum, Germany

Rigidly standing in a shallow niche, this Family Group appears in a similar frontal stance as the reliefs of the Three Goddesses and Genii Cucullati.  The mother stands on the left, has one arm around the child in the middle as the other clutches a diamond-shaped purse.  On the right side the father grasps on to the child’s arm, and he in the center holds a cup to his chest and carries a basket of eggs, fruit, or bread in the other.  Abstracted facial features, stylized folds and simplified gestures define the figures’ forms.  The geometrical props emphasize not only the geometrical structure of the space and the angularity of the figures, but symbolize, as attributes, plentitude, fertility and wealth.  Mother goddesses and Genii Cuculatti are often depicted with these fertility symbols of bread, fruit or eggs.  Water-Nymphs, also occurring in a triadic groups, carry vessels to possibly signify the Celtic allegiance to rivers and worship of River Goddesses.  From this curiously angular purse, one could derive a possible connection with Mercury.  Frequently represented in Britain, Mercury, among his other classical attributes, carries a purse to allude to his role as a trader-god.

This Family Group, however, probably does not reference Mercury, as sheep or fowl accompany Mercury, comprising a zoomorphic rather than a familial group.   More likely is this relief an image of the Divine Family.  Matrono (the Divine Mother), Teyrnon (the Divine Lord) and Mabon (the Divine Son) compose the membership of the triadic family.
Matrono functions as well as a river goddess, identified specifically with the River Marne in France.  The Cult of Maponos, the son, is a Gaulish tradition, associated with Apollo.  One myth of Maponos focuses on the belief that he, as an infant, was carried off to the Otherworld.

This dual focus on family and fertility signifies a common paradigm in the Celtic world; this structure of the divine family was reproduced as well in Irish mythology. The Irish named the Divine Father Daghdha or "Good God," the Divine Mother Boand, a sacred river goddess, and Mac ind Og, meaning "The Young Son."  This triadic structure forms the basis for the majority of Irish and Welsh stories, combining the Celtic mysticism of the number three with the natural notion of the number three as the beginnings of a family.  This Family Group portrays a propitious equation for fertility, happiness, and divine grace.



Genii Cucullati
Stone relief sculpture
Found in Netherby, Cumberland, England
3rd c. CE (?)
Netherby Hall, Cumberland, England
               

Identified by the Gaulish hooded cloak, a cucullus, the Genii Cucullati occur most frequently as stone relief sculptures in groups of three figures.  The triangular shape of the cucullus mirrors the significance of their occurrence in triplicate and reinforces the importance of the number three in terms of their godly presence and potency in Celtic religion.  In this particular relief of the godlets, the cloak reaches only to their waists and straight, simple lines emerge from the shadows of the stone to represent legs.  With conical heads, flat bodies and abstracted faces, they each hold eggs in their left hands.   Toynbee suggests this round object, held in several reliefs of Gennii Cucullati, is a patera, a dish rather than an egg.  A dish correlates interestingly to the vessels of the Three Water Nymphs; the egg, however, finds its sister symbol, in the hands of The Three Mother Goddesses carrying fruit of bread.  Devoid of the architectural elements in other relief sculptures, the Genii Cucullati, rather, stand on a stone ledge, as the relief becomes stage-like. They theatrically enact the attributes of healing, fertility and afterlife ascribed to these gods.

According to Toynbee, "Roman Britain has produced so far thirteen renderings in relief [of the Genii Cucullati], three from the region of Hadrian’s Wall, eight from Gloucestershire, one from Wiltshire, and one from London" (Toynbee 156).  Green states the commonality of these reliefs in Gaul and Germany as well; their find spots geographically correlate with those of the Three Mother Goddesses, especially in the Cirencester area in Britain (Green 56).  The Genii Cucullati, in similitude to region, function and style of the Mother Goddesses, sometimes appear with these divine women in a singular relief sculpture.  They, like the Divine Family, comprise a network of gods and goddesses in dialogue and direct relation to each other.  The number three of each grouping forms the visual and spiritual language for these figures; the reliefs imbue these parallelisms through this magical number.

Triple Mars
Stone relief
Found at well in Lower Slaughter, Gloucestershire
2-3 c. CE (?)
Gloucester City Museum, Gloucester

Despite the poor condition and fragmentary appearance of this stone relief, the Triple Mars conveys the similar frontal rigidity and organization to the other triadic relief sculptures in the exhibition.  A popular Romano-Celtic deity, Mars is most frequently depicted in both Roman and Celtic art as a singular figure.  This singularity appears here as triple unity, as this one figure repeats by three.  With only a slight difference in height among the three Mars, the figures appear in almost exact similitude in terms of dress, stance, and the attributes of this warrior-deity.  Prominently placed in the composition, the geometry of the large circular shields and almost phallic swords or clubs, distinguish this relief from the three triangles (cloaks) of the Gennii Cuculatti sculptures or the small spheres (loaves) from the Three Mother Goddesses relief.  The abstracted, simplified shapes of the legs, belted garments, shields and swords create an alternating pattern, a geometric rhythm.

With  attributes of battle, this depiction of Mars conforms to the warrior conventions of his Graeco-Roman origins. Under Celtic influence Mars also functions as a god of healing, as in Trier, Germany where a healing cult of Mars Lenus existed or is depicted with a cornucopia and references "bucolic well-being" (Green 45).   Regardless of his role, the triplication of Mars deviates from Roman origin and engages in dialogue with the other Celtic gods and goddesses dependent on this triadic depiction for the potency of the image. Mars represents, like the Genii Cuclatti, a male connection with fertility, abundance and association with the land, as Henig affirms, "Despite his helmet, armour and spear he must have been venerated as a fertility god" (Henig 51).   In Britain, twenty-one local Celtic gods have been paired with Mars, are often associated with "places, river junctions and sacred woods," and become reminders of this specifically Celtic interconnection among the land, the deities, and the number three in representing the bind between the former two (Hutton 211).
 

Three Legionary Soldiers
Stone relief
Found at the fort of Croy Hill on the Antonine Wall
1 c. CE (?)
British Museum, London


Triple Mars compares thematically and stylistically to the stone relief from the fort of Croy Hill on the Antonine Wall, depicting Three Legionary Soldiers.  Again, using a visual Celtic vocabulary for the depiction of fabric and figures,  the three figures do not stray from the accustomed frontal, almost two dimensional Celtic stance.   Rather than depicting a roman deity, this relief portrays members of the Roman army.  The legionaries, the majority of which were from Italy, southern Spain and France, upheld the strength and far reaching influence of the Roman empire in Britain in the first century CE.   A correlation ensues between the similarities of a Roman warrior god and a Roman warrior, as the Celtic understanding and oft portrayal of both seemingly occur in near exactitude.

The soldiers differ in appearance, as the central figure’s beard and long face creates a personal identity separate from the legionary on the right, who appears without his javelin.  Larger, seemingly more practical shields and javelin distinguish the legionaries form the Mars men.  Taken in tandem, however, the two reliefs are practically indistinguishable in terms of defining one as a deity and the other as anonymous soldiers.  The reflection of one in the other negates any one unquestionable label for these warrior figures.   The emphasis on battle, although organized differently, arises in both Roman and Celtic myth and sculpture.  Rather than pitting the Romans against the Celts, the soldiers from the deities, a continuum exists between the two and carries the connection on toward the triplication of other figures, and defines this warriorhood in terms of deities, spirituality and religion.  The three soldiers and the three Mars reference and reflect the triad of Mother Goddesses; the visual significance and contiguous style of these reliefs provide a language and understanding of this specifically Celtic interpretation of Roman influences, as this art remains dependent on triune figuration.



Clay Triple Vase
Clay triple vase on hollow ring-base
Chester
Grosvenor Museum, Chester
ca. 1 c. AD (?)
               

As the figures in the stone relief sculptures each hold their attributes of eggs, dishes, pots, or food, this clay triple vase mimics the properties of the figures and becomes an attribute the worshipper holds in mimicry and reverence to these gods.  These three small pots sit on a circular base in a triangular shape.  These spherical, rather than cylindrical, pots read like the round eggs or fruit of the Three Mother Goddesses or Genii Cucullati.  Used in the worship of triads of deities, these pots were possibly filled with water, similar to the vessels the women hold in the Three Water Nymphs relief.  The pots have flat, open lips, a visual invitation to fill these pots with this substance of worship, the water or milk flowing from the Water Nymphs or Mother Goddesses.  The exact replication, or triplication of the three pots is analogous to the physical semblance among the Three Water Nymphs, Genii Cuculatti and Triple Mars.  The same figure or vessel repeats by three, increasing the sense of unity magnified, multiplied by this magical number.

The circularity of the base that supports this triad of vessels acknowledges the significant link between circular and solar symbolism and the importance of the trinity to convey mythical and spiritual belief.  These three pots, as participants in ritual and worship, stem from or are parallel to a ritual called caim, practiced among the people of the Hebridean Island from pre-Christian era until the nineteenth century.  When these people encountered danger or communal fear, they would point with the index finger of the right hand, turn around toward the sun in a circle, and pray to the Trinity for encircling protection (Sheldrake 9).  The clay pots reference this Trinity or triad of deities, as this triune nature draws specifically the desire for spiritual encirclement.  The potency of circularity and the number three coalesce in this triple grouping of vessels.  As these pots are structurally connected, they represent three pots in one.   This notion of three-in-one forms the basis of both Celtic triplism and the Christian Trinity.   Three portrayals of gods represent a sole divinity, as the Triple Mars strengthen the unity of one Mars or the Father, Son and Holy Spirit comprise one Christian God . The pots are stylistic and three-dimensional, physical extensions of the sculptural depictions of the divine and solicit a continuous space of worship from the shallow reliefs in stone to the hands of the beholder.
 

Selected Bibliography

  • Bertrand, A.  "L’Ante, de saintes et les triades gauloisies," Revue archéologique 39, 1880, 337-347.
  • Bonwick, James.  Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions.  New York: Arno Press, 1976.
  • Butler, Christopher.  Number Symbolism.  New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1970.
  • Finney, John.  Recovering the Past: Celtic and Roman Mission.  London: Darton, Longman and Todd, Ltd., 1996.
  • Green, Miranda.  The Gods of Roman Britain.  Aylesbury, Bucks, UK: Shire Publications, Ltd., 1983.
  • Guénon, René.  The Great Triad, trans. Peter Kingsley.  Cambridge: Quinta Essentia, 1991.
  • Henig, Martin.  Religion in Roman Britain.  London: B.T. Batsford, Ltd.,  1995.
  • Hutton, Ronald.  The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British:Their Nature and Legacy Isles.  Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
  • Jacobsthal, Paul. Early Celtic Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1944.
  • Laing, Jennifer.  Art and Society in Roman Britain.  London: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1997.
  • Lehane, Brendan. Early Celtic Christianity. London: Constable and Co., 1994.
  • Legros, M.R.  "Iconographie du Tricephale," Le Monde de images en Gaule et dans les provinces Voisines, 1988, 161-169.
  • Low, Mary.  Celtic Christianity and Nature: Early Irish and Hebridean Traditions.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, Ltd.,  1996.
  • Mackey, James P.  An Introduction to Celtic Christianity.  Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995.
  • Potter, T.W.  Roman Britain.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie.  The Mystery of Numbers.  New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Sheldrake, Philip.  Living Between Worlds: Place and Journey in Celtic Spirituality.  Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1995.
  • Toynbee, J.M.C. Art in Roman Britain. London: Phaidon Press, 1962.
  • Watts, Dorothy. Christians and Pagans in Roman Britain. London: Routledge, 1991.

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