Though dead white males made its images centuries ago, "Eva/Ave: Women in Renaissance and Baroque Prints," opening today at the National Gallery of Art, is a contemporary show. It points its finger at the present. Without the feminist revolution of the 1970s -- and the academic field known as "gender studies" that has flourished in its wake -- it would not be on view. It's a lustrous exhibition. With its master prints by Duerer, Baldung Grien, Rembrandt, Callot and Mantegna, how could it be otherwise? But its beauty is beside the point. Power is its theme.

Not the power of great artists, or not that alone, but another sort of power, more constrictive and oppressive. It's a power set in stereotypes, much akin, its probers say, to that exercised insistently by rich folk over poor and white folk over black. We're not speaking connoisseurship here. We're speaking sexual control.

There are 152 prints on view. They've been chosen from the gallery's permanent collection. They date from 1460 to the later 17th century. Males made them all.

Many of their subjects -- Venus and the Virgin, witches on their broomsticks, heroines and temptresses, frequently unclothed -- are thoroughly familiar. But the viewer is here asked to view them with fresh eyes. Reading them as social tracts dense with coded messages may drain them of much magic. But gender studies specialists will argue with conviction that that's the only way to see what they really mean.

Sexism is everywhere. It's buried in our language. It lurks in sacred images. It is even there vestigially in the title of the scholar who organized this show. Her name is H. Diane Russell. She's the National Gallery's curator of old master prints. "Images of women created by male artists," she writes, "may be seen as part of a patriarchal discourse on women, which often asserts itself as power over women." The emphasis is hers. And it is felt throughout her show.

The "Eva" of her title is the wily Eve of Eden who disobeyed the Lord, yearned for the forbidden fruit, tempted feckless Adam and thereby drenched us all in sin. "Ave" ("Eva" backward) is, of course, a reference to her sinless opposite. "Ave Maria" -- "Hail Mary" -- said the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation. The women in these prints tend to represent extremes. When they're good they're very good -- selfless, pious, chaste. And when they're bad, they're horrid -- dangerous, conniving, often homicidal. And sex is their chief weapon.

Mary is supremely good, not just because she's full of grace and sits at the right hand of God. Her chastity is crucial. There is, these images suggest, no higher female virtue.

That there's a double standard working here is abundantly apparent. Many of these prints have high erotic value. They must have served as pinups. But only men are free to ogle. The good women here depicted -- even when they show us their luscious naked bodies -- take no joy in the carnal act. They're humble, they're obedient and unstinting in their loyalty to their husbands and their fathers. Less free agents than possessions, they prefer death to dishonor.

"Heroines and Worthy Women," the first section of the show, is a gallery of victims. One such is Lucretia, the honorable Roman whose decency inflamed the evil, lustful Tarquin. Raphael and Titian and scores of other artists told her sad and sexy story. Tarquin threatened to accuse her, falsely, of adultery with a slave if she did not give in to his lascivious demands. She submitted to the rape, then told the world about it and stabbed herself to death.

Suicidal women -- who kill themselves for shame, or less frequently for love -- are a fixture of this show. Marcantonio Raimondi, Israhel van Meckenem and half a dozen other artists here show Lucretia standing naked with a dagger at her breast. Dido kills herself similarly. Cleopatra does the deadly deed not with a blade, but with an asp. Virginia is more passive. She doesn't kill herself, but dies nonetheless -- at her father's hand -- rather than surrender her vastly precious chastity to a tyrant king.

Susanna too prefers execution to dishonor. Two elders spy her in her bath. We get to spy her too. Tarquin-like, the two old men accuse her of adultery when she refuses their advances, but they do not get away with it. The prophet Daniel intervenes (this scene is not depicted), and it is they who are put to death.

Death and sex are closely linked in many of these prints. Young, attractive women often do the killing. Judith, from the Bible, appears a dozen times with the severed head of bad Holfernes. Salome shows up often with the head of John the Baptist. Jael hammers her tent peg through the temple of sleeping Sisera, and Delilah snips at Samson. Throughout the exhibition strong men lose their heads.

And their self-respect. Beautiful young women here make old men look like fools. Even Aristotle lets desirable young Phyllis put a bridle in his mouth and ride him around the garden: Learned though he is, he is so benumbed by lust that he behaves like a beast. But if young women are dangerous, old women are more so. They show up here as witches who cast humiliating spells, and often also kill.

The good women depicted tend to draw their power from their piety and purity. The bad women and witches draw theirs from their sex. Venus -- who is both wonderfully desirable and really not so bad -- is granted special license. She gets to loll about unclothed and copulate with Mars -- in a famous, later-censored, pornographic print engraved by Enea Vico after Parmigianino in 1543 -- but then she's not a Christian. And besides, she is a god.

Gender studies cast a sort of raking light across these antique images. Russell and her colleagues show us that these women luxuriate in sex, and through sex in evil, or strenuously avoid it. These prints applaud them for their beauty, and also for their passiveness. The women in this show take one side or the other, they're either saints or femmes fatales. They're often happy to be victims. Impotent politically, they rarely take strong actions. As temptresses, as goddesses or as nude personifications of Prudence or of Fortune, they accept the lustful male gaze with few signs of embarrassment. Throughout the exhibition they both serve and threaten men.

The seven chapters of this show -- "Heroines and Worthy Women," "The Virgin and Saints," "Eve," "Venus," "The Power of Women," "Lovers, and Lovers With Death" and "Fortune and Prudence" -- make such points convincingly. And yet to read these works of art as sexist screeds -- as instruments of power, as manipulative broadsides or as hidden messages designed to keep women in their place -- is to do them deep disservice. There is more to them than that.

It ought to be remembered that the "women" here depicted are rarely real women. Be they Eve or Venus, goddesses or saints, they represent much more than the constraints placed by men on people of their sex.

Think of "Luna with her silver sheen, Diana in the leaves green and Persephone in hell." Think of Mother Earth and Lady Luck and of Justice with her scales. These aren't women drawn from life. These are symbols vastly older, and more telling, than the "deeply-gendered" patriarchal power images that we are meant to find in this exhibit. "Men have sometimes been used to personify ideas, qualities and the like, but it has been much more common to use women," observes Russell in her catalogue. "Why is this so?" she asks. I think the answer's clear.

Women may be relatively powerless in societal relationships, as this show reminds us, but for 20,000 years or more the feminine has had a vast suggestive power in the realm of art.

What I like to call "The Goddess" is the oldest and most powerful of all the images of art. In her countless guises she serves to represent the deepest of the mysteries -- of fruition, for example, of the cycle of the seasons, of the sailing moon, the forests and the tidal seas. Mary, be she riding on her crescent moon or rising through the clouds, is like Fortune on her spinning sphere, a visual evocation of the pre-patriarchal moon-force that once ruled the heavens. As Eve, as Circe in her glade, she has dominion over growing things -- note how many of these images are set in blooming gardens. Her hag form and her severed heads show she also governs death.

She is, at core, a visual suggestion of the calendar. In the present exhibition, as throughout Western art, she is, as is the turning year, first the nymph of spring, then the ruling queen of summer, then the crone, the hag of fall.

Mary in these antique prints conjures her as well. We see her as a maiden first at the Annunciation, and then as queen of Heaven, and then, in the Pieta, as an acknowledgment of death. That tripartite goddess is glimpsed often here -- just look at the three Graces, or at the three Fates. Youthful, bathing water nymphs -- be they Venuses, Susannas or Bathshebas -- are found throughout this show. So are queens of all descriptions, those symbols of Earth's fullness. So are the hags and witches that speak of winter and death.

Nobody would argue that the scores of children here depicted -- as putti and as angels and as cupids with their bows -- represent the roles played by children in the Renaissance. We know that they are symbols of freshness and of love. It is worthwhile remembering that the "women" in these images -- be they sexy, be they scary -- are complex symbols too.

In 1943, when the majority of these pictures were presented to the gallery by the late Lessing J. Rosenwald, it was chic to read old works of art as dense with Freudian imagery. Today we understand that all those swords and daggers plunged into young breasts, and all those regal scepters, and all those witches' broomsticks are more than phallic symbols. The Freudian fashion faded. Gender studies too, though now the rage in the academies, will also dim with time.

"Eva/Ave" finally delivers two conflicting messages. That men have suppressed women, and that they have employed deeply gendered images as instruments of power to aid in their oppression, is one that it conveys. But this exhibit also teaches a very different lesson: No single ideology, feminist or Freudian, is by itself enough to explicate completely the guises of the Goddess, the femininity of beauty, or the old mysteries of art.

"Eva/Ave: Women in Renaissance and Baroque Prints" is on view in the West Building. Its catalogue has been published in association with the Feminist Press at the City University of New York. The exhibition closes April 28.