El Greco may have been the spiritual guest of honor, and the table settings may have been unusual, but it was still a Washington dinner party--a gathering of the temporarily powerful against a backdrop of timelessly stunning art at the National Gallery of Art last night at the preview of the new "El Greco of Toledo" exhibition.

For instance: Lloyd Cutler, former counsel to Jimmy Carter, walked down the marble steps through the receiving line and immediately immersed himself in conversation with Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The topic was George Shultz, secretary of state-designate, who faces a confirmation hearing before that committee.

"He's a wonderful guy," said Cutler to Pell. "They should have picked him in the first place." Cutler said later of his interest in Shultz' confirmation, "It's just a personal thing. Nothing official. He's a friend of long standing."

Cutler is practicing law these days: "It's fun--less frustrating than being in the government, not to mention that it pays more. At my age, one time around in government is enough. I'm glad it only lasted a year and a half."

In another group of guests, former National Urban League head Vernon Jordan, now practicing law here, said he was savoring his new job: "I'm having a great time. I don't miss being a leader at all."

Also mingling: Kennedy Center head Roger Stevens and National Gallery stalwart Paul Mellon--chuckling over a recent visit to the prep school both attended (Choate).

And in the receiving line stood perhaps one of the more notable political officials of Spain--Soledad Becerril, the minister of culture, the only woman in the Cabinet in Spain ("la ministra," they call her).

"At the beginning, when I was appointed, it was something new," said Becerril, 37, after standing for a half-dozen photographers in front of a randomly picked El Greco. "People looked at me, asked me lots of questions, did lots of interviews. Now it's more normal. It's the beginning of a new situation."

Her realm also includes sports--"Because sports is a way of culture," said Jose Llado, the Spanish ambassador to the U.S., hands in pockets as he stood observing the frantic flashes of bulbs focused on Becerril. "It's also an art."

Actually, Becerril doesn't directly take care of sports--she has someone under her in charge of sports. But she did attend some of the soccer games during the current World Cup series in Spain. "I went when Spain played," she said with a smile, "with not good results."

Becerril and entourage arrived in Washington Tuesday night and will stay until late this afternoon. "It's terrible," said Pilar Llado, her press secretary (and sister of the ambassador), "just coming to the States for a day and a half. We're very depressed."

Llado and one of Becerril's advisers, Beatriz Rodriguez, also confirmed that Becerril is one of the most popular personalities in Spain. "Probably the Queen, number one, and her," said Llado. Well, no, wait, they take it back. The Queen is different. Becerril, they correct themselves, "is one of the most popular political people."

Guests--about 370 of them--dined at long tables set with silver plates and candles in wrought iron candelabras. The tables were Pamela Brown's idea, "to catch a little flavor of the refectory setting of Spain," said her husband, J. Carter Brown, director of the gallery. "We thought this would be an interesting switch. Everyone in Washington is used to round tables."

The American Express Foundation has put about $750,000 into underwriting the traveling "El Greco" exhibition (which opens here tomorrow), according to Stephen Halsey, the foundation's president. The foundation also paid for last night's dinner.

Did they bring the bill to his table?

"Right," he quipped, "and I give them my American Express card."