WHEN Titian painted, even royalty bowed to him. J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art, delights in telling about it: ``There are the stories of the Hapsburg [Holy Roman] Emperor Charles V leaning down and picking up a paintbrush from the floor to hand it to Titian. When you think of the stratification of European society at the time, that is an extraordinary homage.'' The magnificent new show ``Titian: Prince of Painters,'' now at the National Gallery here, takes a long, lingering look at the painter whose famous talent made courtiers of crowned heads. As Carter Brown points out, ``Princes and dukes and the power-brokers of the European world competed with each other to wait in line to get him to come and paint or do things for them. He was enormously prized in his own day.''
As one of the great painters of the Western world, Titian's work remains inspiring and relevant today. ``For those who come at the visual tradition through the 20th century,'' says Carter Brown, ``here is an artist who was centuries ahead of his time. And when you get to his very late work, . . . you find a kind of concentration on the paint surface - such a flickering brushwork and a degree of abstraction that it prefigures the abstract painting of the 20th century.''
This glorious show is a way of saying happy 500th birthday to Titian, who was born Tiziano Vecellio, according to scholars, in the small town of Pieve di Cadore in northeastern Italy in 1490. By his late teens, he was living in Venice, painting frescoes under Gorgione, and about to vault into a career as a Venetian Renaissance master that would cover 70 years.
``Titian: Prince of Painters,'' is the only major exhibition of the artist's paintings ever held in the United States. It is also the largest Titian exhibition held anywhere in 55 years, since a Venice show in 1935.
This new exhibition premi`ered in June at the Ducal Pallace in in Venice. It was organized by the Comune di Venezia, Assessorato alla Cultura; the Ministero per i Beni Culturali e Ambientali, Soprintendenza ai Beni Artistici e Storici di Venezia; and the National Gallery of art here, which contains the largest collection of Titian's art in the US.
It is not only the first but also the last such Titian exhibition to be held in the US, say gallery authorities. They point to the frailty of this kings' ransom worth of the paintings and the enormous costs of insuring them, which make future traveling shows unlikely. The exhibition will not tour the US and can be seen only at the National Gallery (through Jan. 27, 1991).
``Titian: Prince of Painters'' contains 50 of his choicest oils and three of his fabled ceilings. Bring your opera glasses or binoculars for those high beauties, which include his thrilling revelation ``St. John the Evangelist on Patmos'' from the National Gallery collection, along with 19 of the original surrounding panels, lent by Venice.
Among the other treasures that are poetry for the eyes is Titian's ``Last Supper,'' inspired by a woodcut by D"urer, in which Jesus tells his disciples about Judas's betrayal. A sorrowful light pours down from windows offering a view of a round church onto Jesus, himself haloed in light. The apostles seated at a diagonal table watch him in shock at the news.
One of the most sublimely lovely paintings is ``Madonna and Child with Saint Catherine and the Infant Baptist in a Landscape.'' It is full of love, tenderness, and wonder. Titian's heavenly blues in the Madonna's gown and the rushing sky seem taken from the pure medieval blue of the celebrated windows of Chartres Cathedral in France. And the breathtaking ``Annunciation'' (13 by 7-and-a-half-ft.) floods a full wall with color; light streams from the wings of the symbolic dove, from the powerful angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, and from a choir of angels suspended above her.
Of course, Titian had many commissions that were not religious, and some of these are grouped here by category. Among them are the stunning portraits of a Duke Francesco Maria della Rovere and his Duchess, Eleonora Gonzaga. There are also paintings from mythology like the exquisite, blond ``Venus With a Mirror.'' There are some violent paintings here, too, such as the excruciating ``Flaying of Marsyas,'' with its bloody theme.
David Alan Brown, the curator for the exhibition's Washington stop and the National Gallery's curator of Italian Renaissance painting, points out the Venice show used a strictly chronological hanging of the works. By contrast, the gallery has organized the pictures thematically, with the exception of a room of early works at the beginning and several rooms of late works at the end.
Mr. Brown smiles. ``I'm happy to say that, as a result of our show, Titian's status hasn't changed a bit. He's still at the very summit of art, arguably the best painter in the whole tradition of Western art, and, in fact, it is his enormous technical mastery and skill [and] his amazing stylistic development that have fascinated artists all through the ages: Rubens, Van Dyke, Vel'asquez are all his real pupils.''
Both Browns (who are not related) compare Titian to Shakespeare in terms of greatness and talent in their chosen fields. Carter Brown says: ``Those late pictures, I find, are closest in spiritual quality to the late Beethoven quartets.''