OLD MASTERS under the Big Top.

John Ringling, who brought us the Greatest Show on Earth, founded a museum that has brought a fine show of Baroque paintings to the National Gallery.

Baroque paintings are an acquired taste, as they certainly were in the '20s when Ringling rapidly gathered a collection of 625 paintings within a period of six years. While his fellow collectors preferred Renaissance painting, Ringling was able to carve out a place for himself with Baroque and its glorious excess.

The theatricality of Baroque appealed to the quintessential showman. "The Departure of Lot and His Family from Sodom" by Peter Paul Rubens is like a scene on a giant stage or screen.

The circus walks a tightrope between the real and the unreal, with sword-swallowers and lions that jump through rings of fire. Baroque paintings, too, project an illusionism, mixing the spiritual and the profane. Although it's a biblical subject, Lot's plight as Rubens portrays it wouldn't be appropriate for a Renaissance church fresco: It's too human to be divine.

Like a circus barker, Rubens doesn't tell the whole story -- he stops the action before Lot's wife looks back -- adding to the tension because we just know what's going to happen next. After the weeping woman turns to stone, Lot will be alone with his zaftig daughters.

While Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci founded Italian Baroque painting, there are no examples of their work here. But their influence ranges widely through the exhibition. Caravaggio's vivid treatment of biblical subjects is reflected in Francesco del Cairo's "Judith With the Head of Holofernes" -- a sort of beauty and the beast, or what's left of him. Beauty and horror contrast here, underscored by light-and-shadow treatment. Having just saved her town, the white-skinned Judith stands impassively above the dark severed head of the lately departed general.

Communication and emotional contact with real people are found in the Baroque: not the glassy-eyed heavenward gaze of Renaissance madonnas, but the direct, riveting stare of Archduke Ferdinand, as captured by Rubens, or of "Pieter Olycan," a mayor and wealthy brewer, whom painter Frans Hals interrupts in mid-sentence.

This feeling of arrested action extends into the still lifes. A grand disarray of raw oysters, halved cantaloupe and pomegranate, cold lobster and plump grapes, "Still Life With Parrots" is frozen in the middle of an orgy of eating. By Jan de Heem, nothing else in this show comes so close to delightful excess.

Such sumptuous feasting had its parallel in Ringling's life, says Anthony Janson, the curator of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.

"We know Ringling would throw these incredible dinners, and they were not just for the pleasure of his guests," says Janson. "He was a large and powerful man with a great appetite."

The dinners would take place at the Ca d'Zan, (in Venetian dialect, the House of John), built to imitate a Venetian palace. On the Museum grounds, it was a winter home and headquarters when the circus was wintering over.

BAROQUE PAINTINGS FROM THE JOHN AND MABLE RINGLING MUSEUM OF ART -- At the National Gallery of Art through September 29.