For those interested in medieval art, a profusion of extravagantly illustrated children's books is available this season - although, because of their sophistication and elaborate illustrations, they may be enjoyed more by adults than children.
On the first page of Medieval Fables, one finds an odd illustration - a vulture with the head of a man. Not a pleasant introduction for a young person's book, but starkly apropos, nonetheless. For this figure, reappearing throughout the book, symbolizes what fables are all about.
Fables ''tell the truth with animals,'' explains the author in a brief introduction. ''They are the repository of man's wisdom about himself for - these animals are men.'' The cunning wolf, the foolish ass, the proud stag, the vulture - each serves to play up foibles in human nature and to warn mankind of such pitfalls.
Although the ''practical wisdom'' found in these 30 fables is not always appealing - the moral for the fable of the fox and the eagle counsels that a bully is ''persuaded only by threats'' - often these fables can be keenly revealing. The language is simple, and the stories sometimes coarse as they may have been adapted from tales of common folk.
Many Western fables like these originated with Aesop in the 6th century BC. Although little is known about Aesop (there is a question whether he really existed), about 200 of the fables attributed to him are found in modern editions.
One example of an Aesopian fable that has been passed down through the centuries and reinterpreted in various ways is the tale of the town mouse and the country mouse, which is included in this collection by Marie de France.
The wood mouse leaves his comfortable but plain country abode to experience the luster of city living. But he soon finds that luxury has its disadvantages - for town mice live in fear of cats, men, and traps. The moral: ''A humble life in peace is better than a wealthy life in torment.''
This is a book painstakingly rendered with first-rate workmanship. Rich, ornate illustrations laced with gold leaf grace each page like tapestries plucked from castle walls. ''Medieval Fables'' is an interesting collector's edition for a home library.
A Medieval Feast adopts a similar manner with rough, rich crayonlike drawings illustrating the tale of a feast prepared for a king. These illustrations are composed of bright colors reminiscent of medieval manuscripts. Petite drawings of vegetables, flowers, fruits, and animals add charming borders.
The book gives a quick glimpse into medieval times: labored hunts, food preparation that involved molding pastries into castles, and baking blackbirds into pies. Each page covers a different stage in the preparation of the feast. There being little narrative suspense, the illustrations are the main focus, appealing to the child in each of us.
Book of Riddles has a similar leaning, but the illustrations have less ornamentation, and express an orderly, primitive style. Each of the 12 drawings is accompanied by a cluster of charming riddles whose answers are buried in the illustrations. Here, objects like snowmen, cats, and keys are juxtaposed to produce a stark array of color. Of the three books, this one is perhaps best for younger children, although the illustrations and format will delight other readers as well.