Once upon a time the maiden was supposed to be a foxhound, and a barefoot black slave was to stand where the dragon now roars. Devising a royal coat of arms for Virginia's state Senate was no common task.

And now that it is finally done, after seven years of international effort, the finished product is provoking some uncommon reactions.

"I think it's completely fatuous and utterly ridiculous," says Sen. Ray Garland (R-Roanoke), the Senate's foremost Anglophile and Churchill scholar who was expected to cherish a coat of arms designed by the College of Arms in London at a cost of more than $5,000.

"As far as I can tell," grouses Garland, "it has no historical validity or purpose except to hold the Senate up to ridicule."

The seal that resulted is itself filled with expressions of Virginia's adoration for the Old World. There are a winged dragon, a medival knight's helmet crowned by dogwood petals, a blond maiden and a cardinal. All of these surround a shield bearing a gavel, the crests of England, France, Ireland, and Scotland and the Latin motto: "May the Virginia Senate Flourish" below the shield.

The case for a unique Senate symbol was made by a now-deceased state senator from Halifax, James D. Hagood. Seven years ago he roused his colleagues to action by deploring the company kept by the loosely draped Goddess of Virtue on Virginia's state seal.

That seal, which depicts the goddess dressed as an Amazon, standing on the chest of a vanquished delegate from Tyranny, was found too often on cocktail napkins and ashtrays, complained Hagood.

While that might not be objectionable to House members, he implied, the dignity of the 40-member state Senate demanded a new, untarnished emblem.

The task was undertaken by former Sen. J. Harry Michael Jr. of Charlottesville, who engaged the services of an expert in heraldry at the College of Arms in London. For several years Michael, who is now a federal judge, and Conrad Swan, genealogist of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, carried on a transatlantic communication while trying to devise a coat of arms that was both unique and symbolic of Virginia.

Swan's first suggestion was to put a foxhound at the top of a ceremonial shield. Michael wrote back that "several members have expressed some doubt about the use of the state dog . . . "as the crowning element of the coat of arms."

Swan replaced the dog with an Indian maiden, flanked on one side by a colonial and on the other by a "Negro dressed in the clothes of about 1750." If adopted, that would have permanently enslaved the black man on Virginia's shield, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Again Michael diplomatically rejected the suggestion.

Virginia's lawmakers, as members of the oldest continuous legislature in the country, pride themselves on patience and reverence of tradition. Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), the Senate's only black member, discovered that affection for antiquity a few years ago when he unsuccessfully attempted to dethrone the official state song, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," because of such lyrics as "There's where this old darky's heart am long'd to go."

A few years earlier, legislators rushed to the defense of the Goddess Virtus on the State seal. Moralists wanted to have her costume refitted to cover her left breast, which had been exposed since 1776. Modern notions of modesty proved no match for tradition.

"I've always thought goddesses were immune from clothing requirements," said Frederick Gray Jr., the secretary of the Commonwealth, whose office is entrusted with the state seal.

But four years after they had authorized the cost of arms, a few senators did politely wonder what herculean problems had held it up. In a letter to one of his colleagues, Michael blamed the delay on "the slowness with which the mills of these gods grind." It was not clear in his letter whether the gods he referred to were supernatural or English genealogists.

In 1978 a completed sketch was delivered to Michael, who presented it to the full Senate for its approval. One senator called it "poorly conceived and even poorly drawn." Sen. Frederick T. Gray (D-Chesterfield) advised his colleagues that a serious mistake had been made -- there were no tobacco leaves on the shield. A Senate seal without a tobacco leaf, said Gray, was like "a Virginia history book with overlooks Pocahontas."

After Michael explained that there was no room in the body of the seal for "every state dog, state bird, state flower or state shell," the Senate approved the long awaited design by a vote of 30 to 7.

Last week, three years after that vote, the cost of arms was finally hung on a wall leading into the Senate chamber. Though Sen. Wiley Mitchell (R-Alexandria) calls it "damn ugly," and an editorial in a Richmond paper suggested that the dragon's forked tongue was "symbolic of the way in which senators speak," most of the legislators seem content with their newest symbol. But there is still critics wailing in the night.

"With all my heart I urge you not to accept the seal until you remove that coarse and ugly female depiction from the crest," wrote a woman from Charlottesville. "Not only is the figure untypical of the delicate and aristocratic beauty of Virginia woman, but the wide face and forehead are genetically uncharacteristic of human beings. Take her off and put the foxhound back."