A Feast of Images and Ideas Style and Substance Combine in a Broad Range of New Coffee-Table Books-From Histories and Biographies to a Work on Madrid's Famous Prado Museum

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CHRISTMAS is a time for beautiful, often lavish, picture books: so-called "coffee table books," presumably because they make a decoration/conversation piece when displayed on a coffee table, but sometimes, I suspect, because many of them are too large and heavy to hold unless you have access to a table at which to read them. While many coffee-table books rely primarily on the appeal of their illustrations, some have texts that are equally, if not more, rewarding to peruse.

Among the most sumptuous of this season's art books, The Prado, by Santiago Alcolea Blanch, translated from the Spanish by Richard Lewis-Rees and Angela Patricia Hall (Abrams, 474 pp., 300 illustrations, $95) features 275 full-page color plates of paintings from the collection of one of the world's most famous museums, the Prado in Madrid. The paintings, including Velazquez's "Las Meninas," Goya's "The Colossus" and "The Third of May," Holbein's "Portrait of an Old Man," Titian's "The Entombment of Christ," Rubens's "The Three Graces," and Hieronymous Bosch's "The Hay Wain," are arranged according to national schools - Spanish, Italian, Flemish, German, Dutch, French, and British - with a brief introduction to each group. The Spanish, by far the most numerous and various at 136 paintings, ranges from El Greco, Ribera, and Zurvaran to Juan Gris, Picasso, and Miro. The Flemish and Italian schools are represented by roughly 50 paintings apiece, with the German, Dutch, French and British making up the remainder.

The upcoming 500-year anniversary of Columbus's voyage and the recent re-emergence of Spain as a modern constitutional monarchy taking its place in the European Community (host to the historic Middle East peace talks) have focused attention on a country whose language and culture have permeated half the Western Hemisphere but whose position in Europe became increasingly isolated over the centuries. In The Spanish World: Civilization and Empire, Europe and the Americas, Past and Present (Abrams, l,272 pp., 320 illustrations, $65), distinguished historian J. H. Elliott, the editor, and his fellow contributors set out to challenge the widely held image of Spain as "a backward country, destroyed by bad government, fanaticism, and sloth." Divided into three parts, covering Spanish history, Spanish culture, and the regions of Spain, this well-illustrated and imaginatively conceived volume presents a richly colored - though by no means rose-colored - portrait of Spain. Essays by a variety of hands discuss topics from the medieval Spain and Spain's role as self-appointed defender of the faith in Europe to the conquest of the New World and the Spanish Civil War. There's also a section on Hispanic culture in the United States. The contributors focus on the theme of the tension between the country's ethnic diversity and the often harmful desire for purity and unity that led to its isolation. The thoughtful text and well-chosen illustrations complement each other beautifully, making this a welcome addition to any coffee table - or any library.

Many books of the season feature photographs of flowers and gardens, but few offer as fascinating and informative an overview of the subject as William Howard Adams's Nature Perfected: Gardens Through History (Abbeville Press, 356 pp., 250 color, 50 black-and-white illustrations, $49.95). The companion volume to a six-part BBC television series scheduled to air on PBS in the spring of 1992, this beautifully written and lushly illustrated book takes us from the fabled gardens of the ancient world to the gardens of today, including the Persian gardens that astonished the conquering Greeks, the geometrically exquisite gardens of Islam, the splendid water gardens of Mogul India, Chinese and Japanese gardens, and the widely divergent landscape styles of England, France, and colonial and modern America. From Roman villas and Zen pebble gardens to Victorian city parks and American nature preserves, Adams looks at the many ways that gardens have functioned throughout history: as emblems of Eden or of paradise; as retreats from the cares of city life; as sources of food, herbs, and flowers; and as settings for meditation. …