My father, who was born before the Wright Brothers flew their airplane, lived long enough to watch the landing on the moon. He used to say he felt a hinge in history had swung. In "From Schongauer to Holbein: Master Drawings From Basel and Berlin" at the National Gallery of Art, we are privileged to witness a turning as evocative, and almost as abrupt.

The exhibition takes place half a millennium ago, north of the Alps. It starts out in the Gothic and then, suddenly, is practically modern. The span of time surveyed by these Grunewalds and Durers, Altdorfers and Cranachs, is not quite 90 years. In a single lengthy lifetime the world had been transformed.

When the exhibition opens, circa 1455, we're in the Middle Ages.

The women look medieval. Their breasts are high and far apart. Their bellies are protuberant in the medieval manner, so that their naked bodies, when we're allowed to see them, look like pale roots or bulbs just pulled into the light.

The men are medieval, too. Their toes are too long, and their fingers and their limbs, too, as if the Gothic style had stretched their slender bones the way it stretched the ribs of high cathedral vaults. Even their clothes are medieval. Their heavy gathered robes look more like crumpled tinfoil than they do flowing cloth.

The culminating drawings here by Hans Holbein the Younger are not like that at all. When the exhibition closes, circa 1545, everything has changed.

Time itself has changed. The Germans and the Swiss now regulate their lives in obedience to their newly common clocks.

Space has changed as well. It's been measured out and regularized in keeping with the strict, newly understood laws of vanishing-point perspective.

Prayer has also altered, for Martin Luther's Reformation has shaken the old faith. (In 1527, 10 years after Luther nailed his Theses to the door, one master in this show, Lucas Cranach the Elder, became godfather to his son.) And knowledge has expanded, for Gutenberg's new type has spread the printed book throughout Northern Europe, and individuality has blossomed (now artists sign their pictures) and classical antiquity has been rediscovered, and nothing is the same.

We think we know that miracle, but we know only a part of it.

From the art in our museums we've gained a mental image of the Renaissance in Italy. But these drawings aren't Italian. What's different is their German-ness, for German and Italian art are not quite alike.

German art is ghastlier. When the astonishing Matthias Grunewald (c. 1475-1528) draws a crying head, we don't sense a gentle sob, we hear a rending howl. When Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) hangs "The Bad Thief on the Cross," he dislocates the felon's joints and has his toes curl up with pain. When Hans Baldung Grien (1485-1545) depicts striding Death, we see the figure's decomposing flesh and almost catch its stench.

Italian art's not like this. Italian art is lovelier, more melodious, less methodical. Italian draperies don't crinkle, they go soaring off like arias. German Crucifixions are horrible, Grunewald's especially. Roman ones are less so, and by the time you get to Naples the blissfulness of holy death is not so far from joy.

German trees are scarier. Italian cypresses are calming. The spruce trees of Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538) are monsters of the forest, spikily immense. And Germanic craziness is crazier. When Urs Graf (1485-c. 1529) draws "Drowning Man and Woman Committing Suicide"--and sets an eerie, swirling pennant dancing round their deaths--we're already on our way to the scathing cacklings of our century's George Grosz.

Both artists knew war's savageries. Graf enjoyed a fight. In Basel, notes the catalogue, he "was repeatedly accused and detained for mockery, disturbing the peace at night, brawling." Graf then signed on as a mercenary, and gladly stuck his sword through the Roman Catholics of Italy and France. A kind of high hilarity goes screaming through his battle scenes--of spilling guts and severed hands.

Graf was an expressionist, before the term was coined, and Hans Holbein a precisionist. It's wonderful to see the linear exactitude with which Holbein outlined his friend Saint Thomas More--or a mouse-eared bat.

Scholars today recognize four paramount collections of Northern Master drawings. None is in America. One's in Vienna, at the Albertina; a second is in London, at the British Museum. The others are in Switzerland, at the Public Art Museum in Basel, and in Germany, at the State Museum in Berlin, and these two institutions have lent the works on view. No museum in America owns such German art.

Part of this is prejudice. In a country that decided to change "frankfurter" to "hot dog," many prosperous collectors were loath to purchase drawings from the Fatherland responsible for Hitler and the kaiser. And part of it is chilliness. For these extraordinary pictures, even when they're drawn with clearsighted technique and breathtaking precision, very seldom soothe.

At metallurgy, mining, sword-forging and the like, the Northern Europeans of the waning Middle Ages were skillfully inventive. They built fabulous stone castles and sheathed their knights in ingenious armor. But until 1455, the year that Johann Gutenberg put out his Latin Bible--the year this show begins--they still made old-fashioned art.

That hanging-on is seen in the oldest sheets on view. We do not know the name, only the initials, of the artist who produced them. He's called "Master E.S." He must have been a specialist in metalwork, machinery and the qualities of inks: He made 300 engravings, and dispersed them widely. He must have known what sold, and what sold was still the old.

The young woman he portrayed in his "Girl With a Ring" is a creature of the past. She's the damsel in the tower, the familiar lady fair of chivalrous romance who offers up her token (in this case her ring) to some knight about to joust. She's not a modern woman. Her face is a madonna's. Her hair suggests Rapunzel's. She's not a person, she's a type.

We don't know much about Martin Schongauer either, but at least we know his name. Schongauer (1450-1491) was the first German artist to sign all of his engravings. He published his own prints, sent them throughout Europe and promoted his own fame. His style remained Gothic, but Gothic with a difference. A scientific sort of seeing is stirring in his art.

His "Madonna With a Pink" has a medieval theme. Mary and the Child are in an enclosed garden, an emblem of virginity. The flower she has picked is a symbol of the bloody nails of the cross. What is new in this old drawing is not its subject, but its light.

It streams in from the upper left, and bleaches out the potted plant, and deepens the dark shadows of the Virgin's heavy cloak. It's the light of observation, not the light of faith.

That sense of seeing freshly grows and keeps on growing as one proceeds through the show. Its landscapes aren't invented, they've been drawn from life. The animals we meet--a lizard and a snake from Schongauer's Colmar workshop, a trained bear by Hans Burgkmair the Elder--have been observed as minutely. This is science mixed with art.

Of the specimens depicted by far the most impressive is Albrecht Durer's life-size "Lobster" of 1495.

Durer was an artist of immense curiosity. (He drew walruses and rhinos, and was on his way to see a stranded whale in Zeeland when he got sick and died.) His lobster, which he studied on his first trip to Venice, is an Adriatic monster seen absolutely straight.

Durer was in some ways still a credulous medieval man. For one thing, he saw wonders, of which the most mysterious was a rain of crucifixes that fell out of the sky. His annotated sketch of that celestial miracle is among the works displayed.

"The greatest marvel I have seen in all my days," the artist writes, "happened in the year 1503, when crosses fell on many people, curiously, more on children than on others. I saw one in the form that I have made after it, and it fell on our maid who sat at the back of Pirckheimer's house, in her linen shirt."

Also medieval was his adamant conviction that the beauty of the nude depended on a system of hidden numerology, a deep and secret formula of rectangles and arcs that he struggled to decipher, though it never really fit.

Change in art is sometimes sudden. The aesthetic Middle Ages lasted half a dozen centuries, and then, all at once, were over. Here we watch that transformation. Schongauer looks back to the way things used to be. Holbein reaches forward. Durer is at the hinge. In "From Schongauer to Holbein" we see an old world ending and a new world being born.


"From Schongauer to Holbein: Master Drawings From Basel and Berlin" will remain on exhibition at the National Gallery of Art's West Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, through Jan. 9. Its 200 Swiss and German drawings from 1455 to 1545 survey the dawning of the Renaissance in Europe north of the Alps. They are on loan from the Public Art Collection, Basel, and the State Museum in Berlin, where the exhibition has already been seen in slightly different form. Its Washington display, arranged by senior curator Andrew Robison, is funded by a grant from UBS AG, with additional support from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. An indemnity has been provided by the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Pro Helvetia, the Arts Council of Switzerland, paid for the translation of the illustrated catalogue. The gallery is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. It will be closed on Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. For information call 202-737-4215. Admission is free.