The minister of culture called it "Spain's last exile" and page-one stories in the local press termed it "a symbol of national reconciliation." If neither comment was entirely apt, both reflected the extraordinary outburst of sentiment that greeted the arrival today of Picasso's "Guernica" masterpiece.

Handed over to Spanish officials by New York's Museum of Modern Art yesterday, the canvas arrived on a regular flight just as dawn was breaking over Madrid. In a wooden crate marked "fragile" and "no hooks," it was tenderly transferred from the hold of the jet to a furniture van. Thirteen police cars and two helicopters escorted it to an annex of the Prado museum where it will go on exhibit Oct. 25, the centenary anniversary of Pablo Picasso's birth.

The enthusiasm reflected more than the possession of the outstanding work of art. For a new generation of Spaniards avid for evidence that the country has left behind a past of violence and tragedy, the presence of "Guernica" is a stamp of approval for the nation's democratic system.

Picasso declared in 1939 that "Guernica" should remain on loan pending restoration of "public liberties" in Spain. He died at 91 in 1973 without having returned to Spain himself.

In the years of dictator Francisco Franco, possession of a "Guernica" poster was a mark of opposition commitment. Copies hung on the walls of student apartments and in clandestine labor meeting rooms. For 40 years, it assumed the status of a political statement that transcended, much as had been Picasso's intention, its artistic worth.

The death of generalissimo Franco in 1975, the holding of free elections in 1977 and the endorsement of a democratic constitution the following year spurred the efforts to recover the picture that had been commissioned in 1937 by the Republican government then in power.

The complex reacquisition process, officials say, involved persuading Picasso's heirs who claimed control over the showing of "Guernica," satisfying the New York museum's directors about Spain's democratic credentials and reassuring such influential friends of the master as his biographer Roland Penrose that the masterpiece would be safe from outrageous attacks by Francoist fanatics.

The surprise timing, the secrecy and the security surrounding the handover and arrival of "Guernica" reflected the fears of such outrages. For its public exhibition, the canvas will be encased to prevent attack similar to the way Michelangelo's "Pieta" is protected at the Vatican.

The controversy does not solely concern neo-fascists, who considered Picasso a degenerate and saw no further than his professed atheism and his communist allegiances. "Guernica" remains controversial in Spain for other reasons that make talk of "last exiles" and "reconciliation" perhaps premature.

"Guernica," for all its universality, remains a deeply Spanish expression--very raw and obvious to Spaniards who see themselves, their history and their culture reflected in Picasso's disturbing composition. Spain's young director general of fine arts, Xavier Tussel, a distinguished liberal historian, said "Guernica" spoke of the "barbarity" of the Spanish race.

The presence of the masterpiece in Madrid has already prompted regional backbiting. Basque leaders lost no time in claiming the picture should be in the ancient town whose destruction by the German Luftwaffe supporting Franco in the Spanish civil war inspired Picasso's creation.

"We the Basques provided the dead, they the Spaniards in Madrid will enjoy the picture," said one Basque politician.

Guernica, a defenseless market town of 7,000 inhabitants, was razed by waves of Heinkels and Junkers that pounded the area for three hours on April 26, 1937. The toll was 1,654 killed in that first experience of blanket bombing. Guernica was still burning the following day but miraculously its historic meeting hall of the medieval Basque assemblies was untouched.

Officials at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona also vociferously claimed "Guernica" on the basis that Barcelona was the city of Picasso's formative years and the museum was the only Spanish gallery to have built up a sizable collection of his work. But the Ministry of Culture is adamant that the painting will hang in a graceful detached building called El Cason del Buen Retiro alongside the Prado.

"Guernica's" wounded horse, the tortured mother and child, the militia man outstretched as in a crucifixion and above all the all-seeing bull are symbols instantly recognizable to Spaniards, although few have seen the 26-by-11-foot original.

It will now be in the same museum that houses another furious indictment of man's inhumanity to man: the massive mural of the Second of May shootings in which fellow Spaniard Francisco Goya shocked his contemporaries by painting the execution of Madrid patriots by Napoleon's invaders.