The evidence is small and the meaning obscure.

In Washington especially, identifying the tiny rosettes in lapels is difficult because of the multitude of glorious medals bestowed by foreign governments on worthy U.S. citizens. Still, knowledgeable souls can decipher the language of ribbons, matching them with the medals for which they stand.

The Chronicler much admires pomp without pompousness, looks forward to attending decoration days on Embassy Row and, unfortunately, must confess to the grievous ignorance of not being able to tell one ribbon from another. Un-beribboned, un-medaled, the Chronicler set out to discover why in Washington some people have been so honored in recent months.

Rule 1: Those engaged in the exchange of manifestations of culture-art-science amongst countries can count on well-deserved honors along the way. J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art, could -- if he weren't so thin -- wear at one time medals from France (two), Norway, Egypt, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Austria and Sweden. Brown says he thinks S. Dillon Ripley, Smithsonian secretary emeritus (it may be significant that both use first initials instead of names), may well hold the record for medals. Ripley's telephone is busy all the time, so the Chronicler is unable to ascertain how many he has -- though he's probably lost count.

Perhaps the most poignant reason for an award was explained at the presentation of the Austrian Cross for Science and Art to Franz Bader, 87, at a party given by Austrian Ambassador Friedrich Hoess and his wife, Claire.

Bader is an art connoisseur, the first Washington dealer to promote local contemporary artists, and an abstract photographer. During the Viennese blooming time before World War II, he owned Wallishauser, the oldest book shop in that city. At the time of the Anschluss, he was forced to flee his native city in fear for his life. In the ensuing years, Bader promoted "American art in Vienna and Austrian art in the United States," said Earhard Busek, the Austrian cultural minister.

In presenting the medal to Bader, Busek paid tribute to all Jews of his time, saying the recent developments in Eastern Europe have "increased the public consciousness about the invaluable contribution of Austrian Jews to the spiritual and cultural boom in Vienna and Austria, which found its sudden end with the craze of Nazi terror."

"Franz Bader is a symbol for those who experienced the full tragedy of those historic events but who despite this experience never turned their back to the nation and the people from whence they came."

Another lifetime in the arts, represented by books on ancient Mexican art, won the Order of the Aztec Eagle for Elizabeth Boone, curator of pre-Columbian art at Dumbarton Oaks. Ambassador Gustavo Petricioli presented the medal to her in the magnificent new Mexican Cultural Center.

Boone, who replied in Spanish, translated her remarks this way: "Of all the nations of the Americas, Mexico has a great and rich cultural tradition, deeply and firmly rooted in the pre-Columbian past, that because of these roots continues to develop and flourish today."

Rule 2: Making a major contribution to a nation's health is a good way to earn a decoration. Harvey L.P. Resnik, a Washington psychiatrist specializing in depression, received his medal as an "Officer of the Order of King Leopold for services rendered on health matters" from Belgian Ambassador Herman Dehennin. (Dehennin and his wife, Mimi, had their goodbye party last week. They're on their way to their embassy in London.)

Resnik earned his honor by serving as a NATO fellow in Brussels, studying psychological aspects of disasters -- specifically the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl -- and for helping the Catholic University of Louvain, just outside Brussels, to establish a new clinic. The center will treat English-speaking people who suffer from dislocation and emotional stress or substance abuse. The clinic hopes to open at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Brussels in 1992, in time for the European Economic Community.

Rule 3: Though being a well-received ambassador is a favored way to earn a foreign honor, those who work for the government are not allowed to receive medals from foreign nations until they are no longer on the People's Payroll. After they retire, they can go around and collect them.

An illustrative case is the presentation of the "Honorary Companion of the Queen's Service Order" medal to Anne C. Martindell. New Zealand Ambassador Tim Francis presented the honor to Martindell, ambassador to New Zealand from 1979 to 1981. She endeared herself to that nation by being the catalyst behind the United States-New Zealand Council. She is also on the Arts Foundation of the two countries.

All followed by loud applause.