Last night Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) took time out from a late session of the Senate to host a book party for the authors of "An Illustrated Life of Jesus."

Not only did Baker -- and his cohost, Rep. William Boner (D-Tenn.) -- show up at the party in the Mansfield room of the Capitol, but so did nearly a dozen other senators, the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the pope's apostolic delegate here.

"I think it's going to fill a real need," said J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery, from which the 94 works of art illustrating the book were selected. Brown is also an old friend of one of the coauthors, Richard Abrams. "We went to business school together," Brown said.

"I'm here," said Daniel Terra, Reagan's cultural ambassador at large, "because I like to know exactly what's going on in Washington."

"I go to fund-raising events all the time," said Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.). "I thought this might be interesting." Dole paged through the book with its thick, finely reproduced pictures. Authors Abrams and Warner Hutchinson, each with a white rose pinned to a lapel, stood on either side. "How long did it take?" Dole asked them.

"About three years -- in the actual writing and researching," Hutchinson said.

Dole looked some more and then left. "I'm going to vote on the MX missile after this," he told the authors.

Later, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) came and repeated this scene, paging through the book. "Beautiful," Helms said. "How long did it take you to do it?"

The attention was a sweet coup for any author. "Beats me," Hutchinson said happily when asked for an explanation for the turnout. "I have no idea." But there was a strategy. "A marketing person for Abingdon [the publisher of the book] did some research on who buys this kind of book," Hutchinson said. "He found that that person was male, 35 to 50, making $35,000 a year or more, basically white, college-educated. He said, 'Oh, that's the Reagan crowd.' "

Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) and his wife, Carol -- Reagan friends -- showed up. "There are a lot of reasons," Laxalt explained. One was that his brother worked for the public relations firm Wagner and Baroody, which organized the party. Other reasons: "The book. And my wife's hungry." Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) was seen at the buffet tables.

Baker was mainly an absent host. "I work just around the corner," he said when he appeared an hour and a half late.

"It's a Tennessee publication and a distinguished publication," Baker said, "and I wanted to pay my respects and apologize for not being here longer."

The book is neither a simple book of art reproductions nor a religious history book. "It's a high-class comic book on the life of Jesus," said Hutchinson, former general secretary of the American Bible Society, former editor of Faith and Inspiration magazine, minister of the United Church of Christ. The other author, Abrams, is executive vice president of Esquire Inc., a New York-based educational publishing company.

The book features reproductions of famous works of art displayed across from narrative text about the portions of the life of Christ that are illustrated. In addition, there is commentary about the technical aspects of the artwork.

The Most Rev. Pio Laghi, the apostolic delegate, and his aide chatted with guests and posed for pictures. Of the book, he said, "I have seen the pictures and I've read just a few lines, but the fact that I'm here shows I praise it highly."