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Earthquakes that damaged and destroyed portions of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi caused serious harm not only to this 13th century church in Italy but to the preservation of the art and culture of our Western civilization.

It was bad enough that parts of two vaulted roofs inside the church collapsed. Even worse that lives were lost.

Hopefully, the structural damage can be repaired. But another tragic loss that cannot be replaced, any more than the human victims can, was the frescoes by two pivotal masters in the history of Western art, Cimabue and Giotto.

Frescoes are art created by applying paint to wet plaster -- in effect, a kind of painting on walls or ceilings. When the shifting earth crumbled the plaster of part of the basilica, it turned precious, nearly 800-year-old artworks to dust -- and took away part of the 20th century's window into the sensibilities of the world that preceded us and shaped our own.

Lost in the collapse of one vault were four frescoes, attributed to Cimabue, of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Lost in the collapse of the second vault were frescoes, attributed to Giotto, of Saints Augustine, Gregory, Ambrose and Jerome.

These were rare paintings. But, as Dorothy Glass, professor of art history at the University at Buffalo who visited Assisi in June, stresses, they were more than rare. The frescoes were "pristine" examples of medieval works by Cimabue. Located in this church built in the 13th century in the rural Italian countryside, they had escaped the hazards from which the medieval art in Rome and other urban areas suffered over hundreds of years. Cimabue and Giotto were crucial figures who represented medieval art but went beyond it to create some of the earliest works of the blossoming Renaissance. The frescoes, said Douglas Schultz, director of the Albright-Knox Gallery, embodied "the reawakening of the human spirit" experienced in the Renaissance.

Fortunately, not all of the magnificent art in this historic church built to honor St. Francis of Assisi was lost. The 28 frescoes on the walls of the church, depicting his life, survived.

So did the tomb of St. Francis, whose feast day is celebrated on Saturday. St. Francis, who died in 1226, established the Franciscan order. Today it operates, among other missions, St. Bonaventure University.

Through the works of many Franciscans, Western New York has a special attachment to this Roman Catholic saint who chose poverty and service to others so many centuries ago and whose influence still touches our lives.

It is impossible to conceive of any work of human hands that will not eventually be lost to the power of nature, whether through a cataclysmic event like this one or just by slow decay. But humankind has a temporary triumph when it cheats time to preserve its finest works as long as it can.

Nature did not take everything that draws pilgrims by the thousands to this fabled shrine every year. But too much was lost.

A part of our shared heritage that had endured for nearly 800 years and was visible only a few short days ago is now gone. Forever.

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