Vasily Polenov: "I love the gospel tales beyond words…"

Eleonora Paston

Magazine issue: 
#4 2011 (33)

In October 2011 the Tretyakov Gallery hosted a remarkable event. In the room featuring Vasily Polenov’s works the museum put on view his two compositions — “He That Is Without Sin Among You” (1908) and “Guilty to Death” (1906), from his series of paintings “Scenes from Christ’s Life” (1890s-1900s). Found by chance at a North American educational institution, the pieces were displayed by Bonhams auction house at a pre-sale exhibition.

Polenov regarded “Scenes from Christ’s Life” as “the central undertaking of my life”1. This circumstance alone has made researchers pay special attention to biblical themes in the artist’s oeuvre. Yet, in its entirety this series is known only from prints in the album “Scenes from Christ’s Life”, which was published by Polenov, and became a rarity immediately after release2.

In 1994 organizers of Polenov’s solo show dedicated to the 150th anniversary of his birth, eager to showcase the artist’s work in its full variety, as well as the diversity of his talents and directions, tried to bring together all of his works from the “Christ’s Life” series. This proved to be no easy task since only a handful of pieces from the series, which numbered 65 works in 1909, survived in Russia’s museums and private collections. The organizers of the memorial show were able to exhibit “Christ in the Wilderness” (“In the Wilderness with the Wild Beasts”) and “Calvary” (“He Gave Up the Ghost”), the compositions Polenov donated to Vyatka Art Museum on its opening in 1911; a new version of the composition “A Dream” (1894, Museum of Private Collections at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts); gospel-themed pictures, whose smaller-sized counterparts were included in “Christ’s Life”, such as “On Lake Gennesaret” (1888) and “Among the Teachers” (1896, both at the Tretyakov Gallery); drafts of preparatory compositions — “And He Was There”, “Martha Received Him into Her House”, “Jacob and John” (all at the Russian Museum), “He Returned to Nazareth”, “Jesus Increased in Wisdom”, “They Brought Children to Him” (all at the Tretyakov Gallery), “He Taught” (Krasnodar Art Museum), “The Last Supper” (Tyumen Picture Gallery), and other works.

It was believed that most pictures in the series had been taken to America and their present location was unknown.

Considering this, one can easily understand the excitement caused by the Tretyakov Gallery’s display of the compositions “ He That Is Without Sin Among You” and “Guilty to Death”, which were parts of the series “Christ’s Life”. The display inspired this researcher to look again into the materials related to the history of the creation and subsequent fates of the pieces that comprised the series.

Polenov spent about 40 years working on his gospel-themed pictures. In a letter to Sofia Tolstaya, the artist, inviting her to visit his studio in Moscow and see his paintings, wrote: “ I will be immensely pleased to show you my scenes from Christ’s life, my ‘Gospel Cycle’, as I call them. I’ve been working on them for nearly 40 years... I ask you... to look at the work to which I have dedicated nearly all of my life.”3

While still young, impressed by Alexander Ivanov’s grandiose composition “The Appearance of Christ to the People” (1857, Tretyakov Gallery)4, Polenov started to dream about succeeding him and “creating a Christ who is not only expected but who has already come into this world and making his way among the people”5. Studying at the Academy of Fine Arts, the artist began to develop this idea in 1868, when he conceived the composition “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery”. He made initial drafts and sketches for it in 1872 and 1876, travelling on a fellowship in Italy and France. In 1881 Polenov set about working on the painting, and this work became central to his life for the next six years. The most considerable influence on his interpretation of the gospel story was Ernest Renan’s “Life of Jesus” (Vie de Jesus). Regarding Christ, like Renan, as a historical figure, Polenov “sought out the historical truth” believing that it was necessary “to present his lively image in visual art, too, to present him such as he was in reality”6.

To ensure the “authenticity” of the settings in which Christ lived Polenov travelled in Egypt, Syria and Palestine in 18811882, paying en route a short visit to Greece. The artist created many sketches exploring the area and local people, as well as the architectural heritage and its relation with the surroundings. He could absorb and convey in the sketches that uniqueness of the light and air of the Orient which would have a natural presence in his painting, noticed by almost every critic who would write about it. Polenov exhibited his sketches as a single set in 1885 at the 13th exhibition of the “Peredvizhniki” (Wanderers) movement. Ilya Ostroukhov wrote recalling his impressions of the artist’s works: “This was something full of earnest admiration for the colourful beauty and at the same time addressing the problems of colour in a fashion completely novel and unusual for a Russian artist. Polenov in these sketches discovered for Russian artists the mystery of the new power of colour and excited them to apply paints in a manner he never dared before”7. The entire set was bought by Pavel Tretyakov directly at the show.

Work continued: in the winter of 1883-1884 the artist lived in Rome, creating a great number of sketches of Roman Jews and polishing his drafts. In 1885, on the estate near Podolsk where he summered, Polenov finished a charcoal drawing on a canvas the size of the future composition. He created the painting itself during 1886 and 1887 in Moscow, in the study of Savva Mamontov in his house on Sadovaya-Spasskaya street. Thus, 15 years elapsed between the initial sketches and the completed composition.

The picture “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery” was shown at the 15 th “Peredvizhniki” exhibition in 1887. Viewers were presented with a scene whose message, as the artist perceived it, was teaching people the ideas of kindness and forgiveness. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” Christ said to the angered crowd when asked how to treat a woman taken in adultery (according to Moses’s commandment, she should be stoned). According to the gospel, people, “convicted by their conscience”, went out. “Where are those thine accusers?” Christ asked the woman. “Hath no man condemned thee?” She replied, “No man, Lord”. Jesus said unto her, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”

The story at the centre of the composition allowed Polenov to engage with moral issues addressed in the gospels that were important for him — the idea of Christian love for one’s neighbours and moral self-improvement — and for this reason the name of the painting was a matter of great significance for him. Later he wrote sadly in a letter: “I called this painting ‘He That Is Without Sin Among You’. That was its message. But the censor prohibited me from printing these words in the catalogue — they consented only to ‘Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery’.”8

Polenov’s composition was purchased by Alexander III at the “Peredvizhniki” show in St. Petersburg, and he subsequently allowed the painting to be brought to Moscow when the exhibition moved there. In Moscow the artist retouched the painting and put a new date on it — 1888. In 1897 “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery” was acquired by the Museum of Alexander III (the Russian Museum).9

Polenov’s majestic composition received numerous reviews in the press. “To my great joy,” wrote the artist, “many understood what I wanted to convey and responded sympathetically. This encourages me to speak up, for as long as my own strength would suffice.”10 He decided to start working on the series of pictures “Scenes from Christ’s Life” during the preparation for the painting “ Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery” in 1884.

“ I love the gospel tales beyond words,” wrote Polenov in 1897 shortly before embarking on the project, “ I love this naive and honest story, love this pure and lofty ethics, love this singular humanity which permeates the entire teaching, finally, I love this tragic, horrid but also grandiose finale. ”11

In 1899 Polenov travelled to the Orient for a second time to gather material. Like the first visit, the second one yielded mostly landscape sketches. They were shown in 1903, again at a “Peredvizhniki” exhibition. The sketches impressed viewers with their “freshness” and “power of colour” as strongly as Polenov’s works of the early 1880s. The importance of sketches for paintings was now more visible than had been the case with “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery”; moreover, the artist sometimes seems to be consciously destroying the boundaries between sketch and painting. Not without reason, he called his sketches “The Path of Christ in Landscapes”12.

Polenov would include in the “Scenes” his new version of the “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery”, giving, finally, to this new image the title epitomizing its message — “He That Is Without Sin Among You” (1908). It was this picture that the Tretyakov Gallery exhibited in October 2011.

In the new version, the artist not only used a canvas of a smaller size but, while leaving the essentials of the composition intact, changed the structure of certain elements and the palette of the picture. Its two parts — the left one, with Christ and the group of his disciples, and the right one, with the group of scribes and Pharisees dragging the woman — became more compact. The colours of the garments of Christ, his disciples and other figures were changed as well, while the palette acquired a harmony of more subdued colours.

Another painting on view last year was “Guilty to Death” (1906), focused on the drama of the Sanhedrin trial, presided over by the high priest, with the court composed of the elders and scribes. The trial took place in the house of Caiaphas and its purpose was to incriminate Christ.

The gospels provide a coherent account of the events during the trial — the false witnesses, the high priest renting his clothes, the Sanhedrin’s resolution “Guilty and must die”. Unfolding gradually in the text, in the painting the events are compositionally knit together by to the image’s circular structure — from the false witness far off to the right, to the high priest and then to the elders making their resolution known with the gesture of a lifted arm. The figures of the other members of the Sanhedrin agreeing with the resolution are drawn into this circular motion as into a whirlpool. Polenov’s picture weaves the events related in the gospels into a single narrative: viewers knew the sequence of events well from the Bible.

Both compositions, “He That Is Without Sin Among You” and “Guilty to Death”, are an element of the grandiose mission upon which Polenov embarked — to represent the gospel accounts with historical authenticity, to “seek out the historical truth”, to create “a lively image” of Christ “such as he was in reality”, and to show “the grandeur of the spirit”13 of this man.

Polenov’s attitude to his work on the “Scenes” was so reverent that in 1906, even before completing the project, he wrote an “Artistic Testament”. In particular, he wrote: “Now close to a final stage of the main undertaking of my life — the depiction of the tales from the gospels in a coherent set of pictures — but uncertain that I will succeed in accomplishing my further plans related to it, I ask people close to me to bring to completion my enterprise by fulfilling the following...”14 He continued, giving instructions about exhibitions, publication of his manuscript with “the text related to the story from the gospels”15, and so on. In paragraph 12 we read: “My artistic testament would be incomplete if I didn’t mention my unfinished pieces of music. Working on the gospel cycle in image and in word, I have tried to convey my mood with sounds as well. From this were born several of my opera which I intended to make public as well.”16 The gospel series thus completely reflected Polenov’s universalism.

In 1908, the series essentially completed, 58 compositions were shown in St. Petersburg, and in 1909, 64 works were displayed in Moscow and other cities. The exhibitions were a great success. The artist Leonid Pasternak wrote to Polenov in May 1909: “The public (and a huge one!) looked avidly and experienced a sublime feeling — it has been long since I last witnessed attention and interest so focused”17.

In 1923 Polenov was invited to take part in an exhibition of Russian art organized by the People’s Commissariat of Education (NARKOMPROS) in New York. The exhibition was expected to present about 1,000 pieces by 100 contemporary artists reflecting the entire variety of Russian visual art of the 1880s-1925. The organizers pursued the goal of financial gain as well, offering the exhibits for sale. Polenov loaned for that show 12 pieces from the “Christ’s Life” series. For a long time the proposal to participate in the exhibition was a matter of dispute in the artist’s family, as the venture seemed risky, but “since [Polenov] has long dreamed about showing his ‘Christ’s Life’ pictures in America. we made up our mind too,”18 wrote Natalya Polenova, the artist’s wife. It was decided to send the following paintings: “Mary Went Into the Hill Country”, “Among the Teachers”, “Seeking Him”, “He Taught”, “The Woman Taken in Adultery”, “Guilty to Death”, “The Agony in the Garden”, “Gethsemane”, “Looking On Afar Off”, “Watching Jesus,”, “Mary Stood at the Sepulchre”, “Mary Magdalene Told Them That Had Been With Him, As They Wept”19.

The show opened on March 8 1924 in New York at the Grand Central Palace hotel, and was on view until April 20. It was a great success. One of its organizers, Igor Grabar, wrote: “The unequivocal success of our exhibition in New York is by far greater and more sensational than the success of the famed Diaghilev exhibition at the Salon d'Automne [Autumn Salon] in 1905. I can definitely say this because I was deeply involved with the preparation of both.”20

Commercially, though, the exhibition fared worse. Its organizers Igor Grabar, Sergei Vinogradov, Ye. Somov, and Fyodor Zakharov in their letter to Moscow said that “despite the success so immense, the show’s position is very precarious”21. Contrary to expectations, Americans were not very interested in buying the Russian artists’ works, a fact that makes the popularity of Polenov’s gospel-themed compositions among buyers all the more astonishing. Four pieces were bought during the first several days after the opening.

Mikhail Nesterov wrote about this in one of his letters: “The week before last my American friends called on me. One of them was fresh from New York, after visiting our exhibition the day before the preview. He thinks the exhibition is elegant and interesting and believes that it will be a success. News coming from the exhibition, though, has not been very encouraging yet: during the first week, only 21 pieces were sold, out of 914. Among the sold pieces, four are Polenov’s (12,000 dollars). ... About 8,000 people came to the preview, on the following days the visitors numbered from 150 to 900. I’ve been told by the Americans that they have a custom of ‘waiting for the newspapers’ and only then buying. we’ll see.”22 The press reviews were highly enthusiastic — the show was characterized as “a stunning event” giving the chance “to feel the true Russian soul”23. Grabar wrote at that time: “As they say in such circumstances, we have not just good reviews but excellent reviews”.24

Later, in April Nesterov wrote to Alexandra Ostroumova-Lebedeva: “Now the prices in America are low, the buyers part with 200 or 300 dollars without much hesitation, but when the sum involved is more like 1,000, they’re less and less willing to part with it. Among the Muscovites, Polenov with his 12 gospel pieces enjoys the greatest success. Four of them were sold. Polenov is the ‘hit’ of the exhibition.”25 The file “Materials relating to the organization of the Russian Art Exhibition in New York (November 28-December 12 1924)” at the Tretyakov Gallery’s department of manuscripts contains a “Listing of pictures sold by Nikolai Grishkovsky26 at the Russian Art Exhibition”27. Here is an excerpt from the listing related to Polenov’s pictures:

March 1924
No. 626 “Amongthe Teachers”
by V. Polenov $ 3000
No. 637 “And He Taught Them ”— 3500
No. 632 “Looking On Afar Off 3500
April 1924
No. 628 “The Woman Taken in Adultery” — 3000 No. 624 “Mary Went Into the Hill Country” — 750 No. 635 “Mary Magdalene Told Them That Had Been With Him, As They Wept”— 2000 May 1924
No. 629 “NearGethsemane” — 750
No. 631 “Guilty to Death ” — 3000
No. 634 “Mary Stood at the Sepulchre” — 2000

Thus, Polenov was the most “priced” artist at the show. However, ultimately he was given only $6,000 for the first four pictures sold, with half of the fees withheld for the benefit of the state. After the end of the “American epic”, the authorities in charge stopped answering Polenov’s letters in which he asked and demanded that they pay the money owed and return to him the unsold pictures, about which no one knew anything except the fact that they had been sent back to Russia. The history of these unsold works cannot be traced beyond this stage. Polenov queried D. Dubrovsky28 as to who, when and at what price had bought his works, and the latter sent a reply from which it can be inferred that “ Sergei Vinogradov’s and D. Dubrovsky’s listings of the pictures sold don’t match, and overall things are chaotic”29.

Very likely, the show organizers responsible for commercial questions, aware of Polenov’s utter lack of self-interest, believed that the artist would not stand up for his rights, despite the privations suffered by him and his family at that time30.

In 1924, after the end of the show in New York, Ivan Troyanovsky, a renowned doctor, entrepreneur and publisher who was also an enthusiastic art collector and an initiator of the American exhibition, congratulated Polenov on his 80th birthday: “How long gone is that wonderful time when I, with my incipient but already passionate admiration, reverently and timidly rung the bell at your door, coming to you, then already a celebrated master, with a pinch of hard-earned money, after a long and anguished deliberation... And I was received by a plain, nervous, sensitive, gentle and delicate, nearly shy man, who understood everything at once, encouraged me — and endowed me with treasures.”31 There were very many similarly fortunate people to whom Polenov sold his pieces at prices so low that the sale looked more like a gift disguised “in the most delicate fashion”32. Even more often he would simply give his works away as presents.

The mission of serving the people was the central direction of his artistic pursuits — this applies to the museum Polenov created on his Borok estate, near the Oka River, which became a “cultural centre for the entire neighbourhood” (in 1902), as well as to the House of Theatre Education (in 1905), which he built, mostly with his own funds, to introduce the masses to art. Polenov’s activities as an aesthetic missionary sometimes led to unexpected results. Sergei Vinogradov, Polenov’s student and one of the main organizers of the American exhibition, related in his memoir where the artist’s ambition “to bring true art closer to the people, or, the other way round, to bring the people closer to art” occasionally took him: “This is what happened once: displaying a large series of his pictures, he put absolutely ridiculous price tags on them, barely exceeding the cost of the needed materials, in the hopes of making the pictures accessible to the common folk. The pictures, however, were bought in bulk by a profiteer who then re-sold them at the normal ‘Polenov’ prices. So, Polenov’s experiment was purely a rich man’s whim, as impractical as rich men’s whims go.”33

Polenov never had anything of the rich man about him, however. He said about himself as early as the beginning of his artistic career in 1874: “I don’t feel at all I have gentlemanly qualities. I constantly work and I love work above all. Any work; painting most of all of course. Although sometimes this is hard work or, rather, toil. The people close to me are all workers. ”34 Late in life he confided, in a letter, to a friend: “I used this sunny week — it was like summer, but a gilded summer — and turned out ‘a great number’ of sketches, as Natalya used to say in her youth. I want to have presents to give to my friends as keepsakes on New Year. I’ve always loved work more than all other things, and I loved it in different forms — in a kitchen garden, in a joinery, on a river, in a workshop. Because of this I’m so keen to leave to both my big and small friends pieces of my work.”35

In America, Polenov “left” quite a big piece of his work. But the paintings “He That Is Without Sin Among You” and “Guilty to Death” were especially fortunate. They were bought at the exhibition by Charles Crane, a prominent industrialist and businessman, an influential public figure, well-known patron of arts, and collector of Russian art. He was a member of the exhibition’s organizing committee and donated a considerable sum to cover its organizational costs. In the same year — 1924 — he gifted both pictures to a North American educational institution. Polenov’s compositions for a long period graced the walls of an academic library, and later, a picture gallery, and were accessible to a wide public, as the artist wished.

Many years later the paintings “He That Is Without Sin Among You” and “Guilty to Death” came to Moscow. Hundreds of visitors could see them in the Polenov room at the gallery. In the opinion of many viewers, the paintings “He That Is Without Sin Among You” and “Guilty to Death”, displayed alongside other Polenov works — “Among the Teachers”, “On Lake Gennesaret”, “The Last Supper”, “The Child Grew Filled With Wisdom” — seemed to have always been in this room, so well did they blend in.

In all his creative undertakings Polenov, a man of singular nobility of mind and delicacy of soul, always wanted to bring joy to the people, to make their life a little happier, brighter and richer through their encounter with beauty. Not without reason did he write in 1888, soon after the completion of “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery”: “I believe that art must give happiness and joy, otherwise it’s worth nothing. There is so much misery, so much vulgarity and filth in life that if art drenches you in horror and villainy, living would become too difficult.”36

The gospel-themed pictures enabled Polenov to address moral issues woven into the gospels that were important to him — the idea of Christian love for one’s neighbours and moral self-perfection. Guided throughout his life by the idea of the necessity of educating people through art, as well as by the beauty and harmony to be found in it, Polenov in the “Scenes from Christ’s Life” reproduced the imagery of the “patriarchal golden age” of Galilee and the majestic and vivid image of Christ, “the Son of Man”. Perhaps that was the reason why Polenov regarded his work on the “Scenes”, to which he “dedicated nearly all his life”, as “the main undertaking of his life”.


  1. Polenov, Vasily. ‘My Artistic Testament’. In: “Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov. On the Occasion of His 150th Anniversary. Catalogue of the Exhibition”. Moscow: GALART, 1994. P. 25.
  2. Scenes from Christ’s Life. By Vasily Polenov. Prague, 1912.
  3. Vasily Polenov to Sofia Tolstaya. (Borok), September 29 1908. In: Sakharova, Yekaterina. Polenov, Vasily; Polenova, Yelena. “A Chronicle of the Family of Artists”. Moscow, 1964. P. 661.
  4. Dmitry Polenov, the artist’s father, wrote in 1858: “Masha [Maria Alexeevna, the artist’s mother. — E.P.] with the children often goes to the Academy only to see [Alexander] Ivanov’s painting, and the children, I mean older children, grasp and make judgments very competently. They understand and adore.” (Sakharova et al. Op. cit., p. 50).
  5. Ostroukhov, Ilya. Excerpts from an article about Polenov. Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. Fund 822. Catalogue 1. Item 1523.
  6. Sakharova Ye. Op. cit., p. 619.
  7. Ostroukhov, Ilya. Excerpts from an article about Polenov. Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. Fund 822. Catalogue 1. Item 1523.
  8. Vasily Polenov to Vsevolod Voinov. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 54. Item 72. Sheet 1.
  9. Presently the Polenov painting is catalogued at the Russian Museum as “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (He That Is Without Sin Among You)”. “Russian Museum. Paintings of the 18th-early 20th century. Catalogue”. Leningrad: Iskusstvo, 1980. P. 233.
  10. Sakharova Ye. Op. cit., p. 393.
  11. Ibid., p. 619.
  12. Ibid., p. 783.
  13. See Vasily Polenov’s letter to Anna Goryainova (Polenov’s second cousin). [Moscow], March 22, [18]97. Sakharova et al. Op. cit., pp. 618—619.
  14. Polenov, Vasily. ‘My Artistic Testament’. In: “Vasily Dmitrievich Polenov. On the Occastion of His 150th Anniversary. Catalogue of the Exhibition”. Moscow: GALART, 1994. P. 25.
  15. Polenov wrote to Leo Tolstoy about that manuscript: “Beside working on a painting, I’m also working on a piece of writing, or literature; it’s called ‘Jesus From Galilee’. This is a compilation of the stories from the gospels and other New Testament legends about Christ, supplied with my commentaries.” Sakharova Ye. Op. cit., p. 667.
  16. Polenov, Vasily. ‘My Artistic Testament’. Op.cit., p. 25.
  17. Sakharova Ye. Op. cit., p. 666.
  18. Natalya Polenova to Ilya Ostroukhov. July 12, 1927. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 10. Item 5194. Sheet 1.
  19. Ibid. The listing taken from Natalya Polenova’s letter.
  20. Grabar, Igor. “Letters: 1917-1941”. Moscow: Nauka, 1977. P. 119.
  21. Zemlyakova, Olga;Leonidov, Viktor. ‘Triumph in America’. Russian Art. 2004, No. 1. P. 35.
  22. Nesterov, Mikhail. “Letters. Selected Writings”. Leningrad: Iskusstvo, 1988. P. 297.
  23. Zemlyakova, Olga; Leonidov, Viktor. ‘Triumph in America’. Russian Art. 2004, No. 1. P. 35.
  24. Grabar, Igor. “Letters: 1917-1941”. Moscow: Nauka, 1977. P. 115.
  25. Nesterov, Mikhail. “Letters. Selected Writings”. Leningrad: Iskusstvo, 1988. P. 298.
  26. Nikolai Grishkovsky helped Grabar, Vinogradov and Somov to organize the exhibition and further showings of the paintings in America. See: Zemlyakova, Olga; Leonidov, Viktor. ‘Triumph in America’. Russian Art. 2004, No. 1. P. 33.
  27. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 11. Item 872. Sheet 7.
  28. From November 1924, chairman of the Committee for Organization of the American Exhibition.
  29. Natalya Polenova to Ilya Ostroukhov. July 12, 1927. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 10. Item 5194. Sheet 2.
  30. In July 1927 Polenov was very sick and urgently needed medical attention. “It’s difficult to accept handouts and to beg for them when it could have been one’s earned money, money gained by one’s own hard work,” wrote Natalya Polenova (letter mentioned above, sheet 3).
  31. Sakharova Ye. Op. cit., p. 700.
  32. Alexei Langovoi’s memoir about Vasily Polenov. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 54. Item 2574. Sheet 2.
  33. Vinogradov, Sergei. “Moscow As It Was. A Memoir”. Ed.: Lapidus, Nina. Riga, 2001. P. 78.
  34. Sakharova Ye. Op. cit., p. 149.
  35. Ibid., pp. 700-701.
  36. Ibid., p. 393.





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