Sistine Chapel (Italian: Cappella Sistina) is the best-known chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope in Vatican City. It is famous for its architecture, evocative of Solomon's Temple of the Old Testament, and its decoration which has been frescoed throughout by the greatest Renaissance artists including Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, and Sandro Botticelli. Under the patronage of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo painted 12,000 square feet (1,100 m2) of the chapel ceiling between 1508 and 1512. He resented the commission, and believed his work only served the Pope's need for grandeur. However, today the ceiling, and especially The Last Judgement, are widely believed to be Michelangelo's crowning achievements in painting.
The chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV, who restored the old Cappella Magna between 1477 and 1480. During this period a team of painters that included Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio created a series of frescoed panels depicting the life of Moses and the life of Christ, offset by papal portraits above and trompe l’oeil drapery below. These paintings were completed in 1482, and on August 15, 1483, Sixtus IV consecrated the first mass in honor of Our Lady of the Assumption.
Since the time of Sixtus IV, the chapel has served as a place of both religious and functionary papal activity. Today it is the site of the Papal conclave, the process by which a new Pope is selected.
The Sistine Chapel is best known for being the location of Papal conclaves; it is, however, the physical chapel of the Papal Chapel. At the time of Pope Sixtus IV in the late 15th century, this corporate body comprised about 200 people, including clerics, officials of the Vatican and distinguished laity. There were 50 occasions during the year on which it was prescribed by the Papal Calendar that the whole Papal Chapel should meet. Of these 50 occasions, 35 were masses, of which 8 were held in Basilicas, in general St. Peter's, and were attended by large congregations. These included the Christmas Day and Easter masses, at which the Pope himself was the celebrant. The other 27 masses could be held in a smaller, less public space, for which the Cappella Maggiore was used before it was rebuilt on the same site as the Sistine Chapel.
The Cappella Maggiore derived its name, the Greater Chapel, from the fact that there was another chapel also in use by the Pope and his retinue for daily worship. At the time of Pope Sixtus IV, this was the Chapel of Pope Nicholas V, which had been decorated by Fra Angelico. The Cappella Maggiore is recorded as existing in 1368. According to a communication from Andreas of Trebizond to Pope Sixtus IV, by the time of its demolition to make way for the present chapel, the Cappella Maggiore was in a ruinous state with its walls leaning.
The present chapel, on the site of the Cappella Maggiore, was designed by Baccio Pontelli for Pope Sixtus IV, for whom it is named, and built under the supervision of Giovannino de Dolci between 1473 and 1481. The proportions of the present chapel appear to closely follow those of the original. After its completion, the chapel was decorated with frescoes by a number of the most famous artists of the High Renaissance, including Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, and Michelangelo.
The Sistine Chapel has maintained its function to the present day, and continues to host the important services of the Papal Calendar, unless the Pope is travelling. There is a permanent choir, the Sistine Chapel Choir, for whom much original music has been written, the most famous piece being Allegri's Miserere.
One of the primary functions of the Sistine Chapel is as a venue for the election of each successive pope in a conclave of the College of Cardinals. On the occasion of a conclave, a chimney is installed in the roof of the chapel, from which smoke arises as a signal. If white smoke appears, created by burning the ballots of the election and some chemical additives, a new Pope has been elected. If a candidate receives less than a two-thirds majority, the cardinals send up black smoke—created by burning the ballots along with wet straw or chemical additives—it means that no successful election has yet occurred.
The conclave also provides for the cardinals a space in which they can hear mass, and in which they can eat, sleep, and pass time abetted by servants. From 1455, conclaves have been held in the Vatican; until the Great Schism, they were held in the Dominican convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
Canopies for each cardinal-elector were once used during conclaves—a sign of equal dignity. After the new Pope accepts his election, he would give his new name; at this time, the other Cardinals would tug on a rope attached to their seats to lower their canopies. Until reforms instituted by Saint Pius X, the canopies were of different colours to designate which Cardinals had been appointed by which Pope. Paul VI abolished the canopies altogether, since, under his papacy, the population of the College of Cardinals had increased so much to the point that they would need to be seated in rows of two against the walls, making the canopies obstruct the view of the cardinals in the back row.
The Chapel is a high rectangular brick building, its exterior unadorned by architectural or decorative details, as common in many Medieval and Renaissance churches in Italy. It has no exterior facade or exterior processional doorways, as the ingress has always been from internal rooms within the Papal Palace, and the exterior can be seen only from nearby windows and light-wells in the palace. The internal spaces are divided into three stories of which the lowest is huge, with a robustly vaulted basement with several utilitarian windows and a doorway giving onto the exterior court.
Above is the main space, the Chapel, the internal measurements of which are 40.9 metres (134 ft) long by 13.4 metres (44 ft) wide—the dimensions of the Temple of Solomon, as given in the Old Testament. The vaulted ceiling rises to 20.7 metres (68 ft). The building had six tall arched windows down each side and two at either end. Several of these have been blocked, but the chapel is still accessible. Above the vault rises a third story with wardrooms for guards. At this level, an open projecting gangway was constructed, which encircled the building supported on an arcade springing from the walls. The gangway has been roofed as it was a continual source of water leaking in to the vault of the Chapel.
Subsidence and cracking of masonry such as must also have affected the Cappella Maggiore has necessitated the building of very large buttresses to brace the exterior walls. The accretion of other buildings has further altered the exterior appearance of the Chapel.
As with most buildings measured internally, absolute measurement is hard to ascertain. However, the general proportions of the chapel are clear to within a few centimeters. The length is the measurement and has been divided by three to get the width and by two to get the height. Maintaining the ratio, there were six windows down each side and two at either end. The screen that divides the chapel was originally placed halfway from the altar wall, but this has changed. Clearly defined proportions were a feature of Renaissance architecture and reflected the growing interest in the Classical heritage of Rome.
The ceiling of the chapel is a flattened barrel vault springing from a course that encircles the walls at the level of the springing of the window arches. This barrel vault is cut transversely by smaller vaults over each window, which divide the barrel vault at its lowest level into a series of large pendentives rising from shallow pilasters between each window. The barrel vault was originally painted brilliant-blue and dotted with gold stars, to the design of Piermatteo Lauro de' Manfredi da Amelia. The pavement is in opus alexandrinum, a decorative style using marble and coloured stone in a pattern that reflects the earlier proportion in the division of the interior and also marks the processional way form the main door, used by the Pope on important occasions such as Palm Sunday.
The screen or transenna in marble by Mino da Fiesole, Andrea Bregno, and Giovanni Dalmata divides the chapel into two parts. Originally these made equal space for the members of the Papal Chapel within the sanctuary near the altar and the pilgrims and townsfolk without. However, with growth in the number of those attending the Pope, the screen was moved giving a reduced area for the faithful laity. The transenna is surmounted by a row of ornate candlesticks, once gilt, and has a wooden door, where once there was an ornate door of gilded wrought iron. The sculptors of the transenna also provided the cantoria or projecting choir gallery.
During occasional ceremonies of particular importance, the side walls are covered with a series of tapestries originally designed for the chapel from Raphael, but looted a few years later in the 1527 Sack of Rome and either burnt for their precious metal content or scattered around Europe. The tapestries depict events from the Life of St. Peter and the Life of St. Paul as described in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. In the late 20th century, a set was reassembled (several further sets had been made) and displayed again in the Sistine Chapel in 1983. The full-size preparatory cartoons for seven of the ten tapestries are known as the Raphael Cartoons and are in London.
The walls are divided into three main tiers. The lower is decorated with frescoed wall hangings in silver and gold. The central tier of the walls has two cycles of paintings, which complement each other, The Life of Moses and The Life of Christ. They were commissioned in 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV and executed by Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Perugino, and Cosimo Roselli and their workshops. The upper tier is divided into two zones. At the lower level of the windows is a Gallery of Popes painted at the same time as the Lives. Around the arched tops of the windows are areas known as the lunettes which contain the Ancestors of Christ, painted by Michelangelo as part of the scheme for the ceiling.
The ceiling, commissioned by Pope Julius II and painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, has a series of nine paintings showing God's Creation of the World, God's Relationship with Mankind, and Mankind's Fall from God's Grace. On the large pendentives that support the vault are painted twelve Biblical and Classical men and women who prophesied that God would send Jesus Christ for the salvation of mankind.
In 1515, Raphael was commissioned by Pope Leo X to design a series of ten tapestries to hang around the lower tier of the walls. Leo intended the works to hang beneath a series of 15th century frescoes that had been commissioned by Sixtus IV. Raphael was at the time twenty-five and an established artist in Florence, with a number of wealthy patrons, yet he was ambitious, and keen to make an entry into the patronage of the papacy. Raphael was attracted by the ambition and energy of Rome.
Raphael saw the commission as an opportunity to be compared with Michelangelo, while Leo saw hangings as his answer to the ceiling of Julius. The subjects he chose were based on the text of the Acts of the Apostles. Work began in mid-1515. Due to their large size, manufacture of the hangings was carried out in Brussels, and took four years under the hands of the weavers in the shop of Pieter van Aelst.
Although Michelangelo's complex design for the ceiling was not quite what his patron, Pope Julius II, had in mind when he commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Twelve Apostles, the scheme displayed a consistent iconographical pattern. However, this was disrupted by a further commission to Michelangelo to decorate the wall above the altar with The Last Judgement, 1537-1541. The painting of this scene necessitated the obliteration of two episodes from the Lives, several of the Popes and two sets of Ancestors. Two of the windows were blocked and two of Raphael's tapestries became redundant.
The wall paintings were executed by the most respected painters of the 15th century: Pietro Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli, Luca Signorelli and their respective workshops, which included Pinturicchio, Piero di Cosimo and Bartolomeo della Gatta. The subjects were historical religious themes, selected and divided according to the medieval concept of the partition of world history into three epochs: before the Ten Commandments were given to Moses, between Moses and Christ's birth, and the Christian era thereafter. They underline the continuity between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, or the transition from the Mosaic law to the Christian religion.
The walls were painted over a relatively short period of time, barely eleven months between July 1481 and May 1482. The painters were each required first to execute a sample fresco; these were to be officially examined and evaluated in January, 1482. However, it was so evident at such an early stage that the frescoes would be satisfactory that by October 1481, the artists were given the commission to execute the remaining ten stories.
The pictorial programme for the chapel was composed of a cycle each from the Old and New Testament of scenes from the lives of Moses and Christ. The narratives began at the altar wall - the frescoes painted there yielding to Michelangelo's Last Judgment a mere thirty years later - continued along the long walls of the chapel, and ended at the entrance wall. A gallery of papal portraits was painted above these depictions, and the latter were completed underneath by representations of painted curtains. The individual scenes from the two cycles contain typological references to one another. The Old and New Testaments are understood as constituting a whole, with Moses appearing as the prefiguration of Christ.
The typological positioning of the Moses and Christ cycles has a political dimension going beyond a mere illustrating of the correspondences between Old and New Testament. Sixtus IV was employing a precisely conceived program to illustrate through the entire cycle the legitimacy of papal authority, running from Moses, via Christ, to Peter, whose ultimate authority, conferred by Christ, ultimately to the Pope of present. The portraits of the latter above the narrative depictions served emphatically to illustrate the ancestral lineage of their God-given authority.
The two most important scenes from the fresco cycle, Perugino's Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter and Botticelli's The Punishment of Korah, both contain in the background the triumphal arch of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, who gave the Pope temporal power over the Roman western world. The triumphal arch makes reference to the imperial grant of papal power of the Pope. Sixtus IV was, thereby, not only illustrating his position in a line of succession starting in the Old Testament and continuing through the New Testament up to contemporary times but simultaneously restating the view of the papacy as the legitimate successor to the Roman Empire.
Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter
Among Perugino's frescoes in the Chapel, the Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter is stylistically the most instructive. This scene is a reference to Matthew 16 in which the "keys of the kingdom of heaven" are given to St.Peter. These keys represent the power to forgive and to share the word of God thereby giving them the power to allow others into heaven. The main figures are organized in a frieze in two tightly compressed rows close to the surface of the picture and well below the horizon. The principal group, showing Christ handing the silver and gold keys to the kneeling St. Peter, is surrounded by the other Apostles, including Judas (fifth figure to the left of Christ), all with halos, together with portraits of contemporaries, including one said to be a self-portrait (fifth from the right edge). The flat, open square is divided by coloured stones into large foreshortened rectangles, although they are not used in defining the spatial organization. Nor is the relationship between the figures and the felicitous invention of the porticoed Temple of Solomon that dominates the picture effectively resolved. The triumphal arches at the extremities appear as superfluous antiquarian references, suitable for a Roman audience. Scattered in the middle distance are two secondary scenes from the life of Christ, including the Tribute Money on the left and the Stoning of Christ on the right.
The style of the figures is inspired by Andrea del Verrocchio. The active drapery, with its massive complexity, and the figures, particularly several apostles, including St. John the Evangelist, with beautiful features, long flowing hair, elegant demeanour, and refinement recall St Thomas from Verrocchio's bronze group in Orsanmichele. The poses of the actors fall into a small number of basic attitudes that are consistently repeated, usually in reverse from one side to the other, signifying the use of the same cartoon. They are graceful and elegant figures who tend to stand firmly on the earth. Their heads are smallish in proportion to the rest of their bodies, and their features are delicately distilled with considerable attention to minor detail.
The octagonal temple of Jerusalem and its porches that dominates the central axis must have had behind it a project created by an architect, but Perugino's treatment is like the rendering of a wooden model, painted with exactitude. The building with its arches serves as a backdrop in front of which the action unfolds. Perugino has made a significant contribution in rendering the landscape. The sense of an infinite world that stretches across the horizon is stronger than in almost any other work of his contemporaries, and the feathery trees against the cloud-filled sky with the bluish-gray hills in the distance represent a solution that later painters would find instructive, especially Raphael.
The fresco was believed to be a good omen in papal conclaves: superstition held that the cardinal who (as selected by lot) was housed in the cell beneath the fresco was likely to be elected. Contemporary records indicate at least three popes were housed beneath the fresco during the conclaves that elected them: Pope Clement VII, Pope Julius II, and Pope Paul III.
Scenes of the Life of Moses
Botticelli painted three scenes within the short period of eleven months: Scenes from the Life of Moses, The Temptation of Christ and The Punishment of Korah. He also painted, with much help from his workshop, in the niches above the biblical scenes, some portraits of popes, which have been considerably painted over. In all these works his painting appears relatively weak.
The Scenes of the Life of Moses fresco is opposite The Temptation of Christ also painted by Botticelli. The two pictures are typologically related in that both deal with the theme of temptation. Botticelli integrated seven episodes from the life of the young Moses into the landscape with considerable skill, by opening up the surface of the picture with four diagonal rows of figures.
The Punishment of Korah
The message of this painting provides the key to an understanding of the Sistine Chapel as a whole before Michelangelo's work. The fresco reproduces three episodes, each of which depicts a rebellion by the Hebrews against God's appointed leaders, Moses and Aaron, along with the ensuing divine punishment of the agitators. On the right-hand side, the revolt of the Jews against Moses is related, the latter portrayed as an old man with a long white beard, clothed in a yellow robe and an olive-green cloak. Irritated by the various trials through which their emigration from Egypt was putting them, the Jews demanded that Moses be dismissed. They wanted a new leader, one who would take them back to Egypt, and they threatened to stone Moses; however, Joshua placed himself protectively between them and their would-be victim, as depicted in Botticelli's painting.
The centre of the fresco shows the rebellion, under the leadership of Korah, of the sons of Aaron and some Levites, who, setting themselves up in defiance of Aaron's authority as high priest, also offered up incense. In the background we see Aaron in a blue robe, swinging his incense censer with an upright posture and filled with solemn dignity, while his rivals stagger and fall to the ground with their censers at God's behest. Their punishment ensues on the left-hand side of the picture, as the rebels are swallowed up by the earth, which is breaking open under them. The two innocent sons of Korah, the ringleader of the rebels, appear floating on a cloud, exempted from the divine punishment.
The principal message of these scenes is made manifest by the inscription in the central field of the triumphal arch: "Let no man take the honour to himself except he that is called by God, as Aaron was." The fresco thus holds a warning that God's punishment will fall upon those who oppose God's appointed leaders. This warning also contained a contemporary political reference through the portrayal of Aaron in the fresco, depicted wearing the triple-ringed tiara of the Pope and thus characterized as the papal predecessor. It was a warning to those questioning the ultimate authority of the Pope over the Church. The papal claims to leadership were God-given, their origin lay in Christ giving Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven and thereby granting him primacy over the young Church. Perugino painted this crucial element of the doctrine of papal supremacy immediately opposite Botticelli's fresco.
The Temptation of Christ
The fresco which Botticelli began in July 1481, is the third scene within the Christ cycle and depicts the Temptation of Christ. Christ's threefold temptation by the Devil, as described in the Gospel according to Matthew, can be seen in the background of the picture, with the devil disguised as a hermit. At top left, up on the mountain, he is challenging Christ to turn stones into bread; in the centre, we see the two standing on a temple, with the Devil attempting to persuade Christ to cast himself down; on the right-hand side, he is showing the Son of God the splendour of the world's riches, over which he is offering to make Him master. However, Christ drives away the Devil, who ultimately reveals his true devilish form.
On the right in the background, three angels have prepared a table for the celebration of the Eucharist, a scene that becomes comprehensible only when seen in conjunction with the event in the foreground of the fresco. The unity of these two events from the point of view of content is clarified by the reappearance of Christ with three angels in the middle ground on the left of the picture, where he is, it is apparent, explaining the incident occurring in the foreground to the heavenly messengers. We are concerned here with the celebration of a Jewish sacrifice, conducted daily before the Temple in accordance with ancient custom. The high priest is receiving the blood-filled sacrificial bowl, while several people are bringing animals and wood as offerings.
At first sight, the inclusion of this Jewish sacrificial scene in the Christ cycle would appear extremely puzzling; however, its explanation may be found in the typological interpretation. The Jewish sacrifice portrayed here refers to the crucifixion of Christ, who through His death offered of His flesh and blood for the redemption of mankind. Christ's sacrifice is reconstructed in the celebration of the Eucharist, alluded to here by the gift table prepared by the angels.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 to repaint the vault, or ceiling, of the Chapel. It was originally painted as golden stars on a blue sky. The work was completed between 1508 and 2 November 1512. He painted the Last Judgment over the altar, between 1535 and 1541, on commission from Pope Paul III Farnese.
Michelangelo was intimidated by the scale of the commission, and made it known from the outset of Julius II's approach that he would prefer to decline. He felt he was more of a sculptor than a painter, and was suspicious that such a large-scale project was being offered to him by enemies as a set-up for an inevitable fall. For Michelangelo, the project was a distraction from the major marble sculpture that had preoccupied him for the previous few years.
The sources of Michelangelo's inspiration are not easily determined; both Joachite and Augustinian theologians were within the sphere of Julius influence. Nor is known the extent to which his own hand physically contributed to the actual physical painting of any of particular images attributed to him.
To be able to reach the ceiling, Michelangelo needed a support; the first idea was by Julius' favoured architect Donato Bramante, who wanted to build for him a scaffold to be suspended in the air with ropes. However, Bramante did not successfully complete the task, and the structure he built was flawed. He had perforated the vault in order to lower strings to secure the scaffold. Michelangelo laughed when he saw the structure, and believed it would leave holes in the ceiling once the work was ended. He asked Bramante what was to happen when the painter reached the perforations, but the architect had no answer.
The matter was taken before the Pope, who ordered Michelangelo to build a scaffold of his own. Michelangelo created a flat wooden platform on brackets built out from holes in the wall, high up near the top of the windows. He stood on this scaffolding while he painted.
Michelangelo used bright colours, easily visible from the floor. On the lowest part of the ceiling he painted the ancestors of Christ. Above this he alternated male and female prophets, with Jonah over the altar. On the highest section, Michelangelo painted nine stories from the Book of Genesis. He was originally commissioned to paint only 12 figures, the Apostles. He turned down the commission because he saw himself as a sculptor, not a painter. The Pope offered to allow Michelangelo to paint biblical scenes of his own choice as a compromise. After the work was finished, there were more than 300. His figures showed the creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the Great Flood.
The Last Judgment was painted by Michelangelo between 1535-1541, after the Sack of Rome of 1527 by mercenary forces from the Holy Roman Empire, which effectively ended the Roman Renaissance, just before the Council of Trent. The work was constructed on a grand scale, and spans the entire wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel. The Last Judgment is a depiction of the second coming of Christ and the Apocalypse. The souls of humanity rise and descend to their fates as judged by Christ and his saintly entourage. The wall on which The Last Judgment is painted looms out slightly over the viewer as it rises, and is meant to be somewhat fearful and to instill piety and respect for God's power. In contrast to the other frescoes in the Chapel, the figures are heavily muscled and appear somewhat tortured—even the Virgin Mary at the center seems to be cowering before God.
The Last Judgment was an object of a bitter dispute between Cardinal Carafa and Michelangelo. Because he depicted naked figures, the artist was accused of immorality and obscenity. A censorship campaign (known as the "Fig-Leaf Campaign") was organized by Carafa and Monsignor Sernini (Mantua's ambassador) to remove the frescoes. When the Pope's own Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena said "it was mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns," Michelangelo worked da Cesena's semblance into the scene as Minos, judge of the underworld. It is said that when he complained to the Pope, the pontiff responded that his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so the portrait would have to remain.
The genitalia in the fresco were later covered by the artist Daniele da Volterra, whom history remembers by the derogatory nickname "Il Braghettone" ("the breeches-painter").
Restoration and controversy
The Sistine Chapel's ceiling restoration began on November 7, 1984. The restoration complete, the chapel was re-opened to the public on April 8, 1994. The part of the restoration in the Sistine Chapel that has caused the most concern is the ceiling, painted by Michelangelo. The emergence of the brightly-coloured Ancestors of Christ from the gloom sparked a reaction of fear that the processes being employed in the cleaning were too severe.
The problem lies in the analysis and understanding of the techniques utilised by Michelangelo, and the technical response of the restorers to that understanding. A close examination of the frescoes of the lunettes convinced the restorers that Michelangelo worked exclusively in "buon fresco"; that is, the artist worked only on freshly-laid plaster and each section of work was completed while the plaster was still in its fresh state. In other words, Michelangelo did not work "a secco"; he did not come back later and add details onto the dry plaster.
The restorers, by assuming that the artist took a universal approach to the painting, took a universal approach to the restoration. A decision was made that all of the shadowy layer of animal glue and "lamp black", all of the wax, and all of the overpainted areas were contamination of one sort or another: smoke deposits, earlier restoration attempts, and painted definition by later restorers in an attempt to enliven the appearance of the work. Based on this decision, according to Arguimbau's critical reading of the restoration data that has been provided, the chemists of the restoration team decided upon a solvent that would effectively strip the ceiling down to its paint-impregnated plaster. After treatment, only that which was painted "buon fresco" would remain.
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- Stone, Irving (2004). The Agony and the Ecstasy. London: Nal Trade. ISBN 0451213238. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Agony_and_the_Ecstasy_%28novel%29. . Previously publish by Doubleday in 1961.
- Blech, Benjamin; Doliner, Roy (2008). The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican. New York: HarperOne. ISBN 9780061469046.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Sistine Chapel|
- Vatican Museums Online: Sistine Chapel A virtual detailed tour of the frescoes and panels
- Web Gallery of Art: Visit to the Sistine Chapel in Vatican
- BBC News: Sistine Chapel Restored (1999)
- The Restoration of the Sistine Chapel: Right or Wrong?
- www.christusrex.org Capella Sistina
- Digital Tour of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and walls, with identifications and details
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