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 Chri st," 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 remaind er. 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 g ardens 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. This book should be of interest not only to garden lovers, but also to anyone interested in the continuing, always changing relationship between man and nature. Far narrower in historical range, but just as comprehensive a study of the relationship between art and nature, is Pierre Wittmer's elaborately illustrated, meticulously documented examination of the French Impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte. Caillebotte and His Garden at Yerres (Abrams, 344 pp., 321 illustrations, $95) uses photographs, maps, landscape plans, excerpts from the painter's writings, and lovely reproductions of his paintings to make a persuasive case for the genius of this underrated artist. Wittmer also sheds light on the aesthetics of the French garden in general. A delightful tribute to an Impressionist who easily established himself as a leading figure in the art world can be found in Manet by himself, edited by Juliet Wilson-Bareau (Little, Brown & Co./Bulfinch Press, 320 pp., 239 color illustrations, $60.) One of a series of books presenting individual artists "by themselves" (in their own words and images), this one offers a selection of Manet's letters and conversations, along with paintings, pastels, prints, and drawings, including what would seem to be all of his most famous works. This is a book that enables us to take a fresh look at an artist whose primary aim was to forget what he called "artistic tricks of the trade" in favor of painting and seeing things afresh. The combination of words and pictures in his own version of the illuminated manuscript was a lifelong preoccupation of the poet William Blake. It was an expensive process even in his time, and the potential for commercial success was further undermined by the astonishing originality of his vision. The William Blake Trust, under the aegis of the Princeton University Press, has set about publishing "Blake's Illuminated Books," under the general editorship of David Bindman. Blake's complex epic Jerusalem: T he Emanation of the Giant Albion, edited by Morton D. Paley (302 pp., $75) was the first to be published in this series. A more accessible place to start reading Blake, however, would be with the Songs of Innocence and of Experience - volume 2 of the collected edition - edited by Andrew Lincoln (209 pp., $59.50). Complete with commentary, notes, and introduction, this edition presents the 54 delicately colored plates of the copy of the book held by King's College, Cambridge, England, along with an additiona l 12 plates showing variant treatments of the subjects. The plates are on the right-hand page, and a printed transcription of the verse appears on the left-hand page for easy reading. The text, rather than the illustrations, remains the primary attraction of historian Daniel J. Boorstin's "The Discoverers" (first published in 1983). But his clearly presented and fascinating account of the perpetual battle between discoverers and the received wisdom of their times is wonderfully enhanced by the intriguing and well-chosen illustrations - some 550 of them, 200 in color - of a new "deluxe illustrated edition," two handsomely designed volumes, suitably slipcased. The Discoverers: An Illust rated History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself (Abrams, 1,024 pp., $75) takes us from man's exploration of time itself - as measured by the moon, the sun, calendars, and clocks - and his efforts to explore and map out the geography of earth and sea, to his exploration of nature - from the realms of the submicroscopic to those seen only through a telescope - and his study of human nature and society. Illustrations also add luster to historian Fernand Braudel's influential study Out of Italy: 1450-1650, first published in 1974, newly translated into English by Sian Reynolds (Flammarion, 245 pp., $50). Braudel's searching questions about the nature of cultural influence lead to a fascinating discussion of the connections between politics, art, trade, ideas, economics, and power that belies the handsome coffee-table format. And the pictures alone, as they say, are worth the price of admission. The precarious plight of the world's tropical rain forests is the subject of two very timely and valuable books. Amazonia, with photographs and text by the well-known wilderness photographer and explorer Loren McIntyre (Sierra Club Books, 184 pp., 121 color photographs, $40), is a visually stunning look at the landscape, people, flora, and fauna of the Amazon's four domains: the white waters of the western mountains, the gleaming black waters of the Rio Negro to the north, the blue waters from the Brazil ian highlands to the south, and the muddy brown waters of the Amazon as it wends its way to the Atlantic. The text draws on McIntyre's more than 40 years' experience of exploring the region and reflects his growing conviction that preservation must replace exploitation. Somewhat more didactic in tone and encyclopedic in its approach is Vanishing Eden: The Plight of the Tropical Rainforest, the North American edition of a book originally published in German (Barron's, 304 pp., illustrated, $49.95), edited by Edward G. Atkins, foreword by Olivia Newton-John in her capacity as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme, which will receive $3 for each book sold. Filled with brightly colored photos and drawings, with information-packed chapters by knowl edgeable experts on the history, ecology, and future of these regions, this book is obviously geared to young people, but it has much to hold the attention of readers of any age. A wide-ranging collection of wondrous stories ranging from Apuleius's second-century tale of Cupid and Psyche to fantasy stories by modern writers like Angela Carter, Italo Calvino, and Philip K. Dick, Spells of Enchantment: The Wondrous Fairy Tales of Western Culture, edited by Jack Zipes (Viking, 814 pp., illustrated, $30) offers a dazzling array of literary fairy tales that were written for adults, but many of which have also delighted generations of children. The editor has included tales from such t raditional sources as Wilhelm Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen, plus stories by Hawthorne, Wilde, Twain, Goethe, Yeats, Novalis, and L. Frank Baum, and many from unexpected sources, such as August Strindberg and Anatole France. The 60-odd stories in this collection represent a fascinating variety of approaches, from folk-tale simplicity to sophisticated parody to feminist revisionism. For fans of Frodo - or someone whom you suspect will thank you a hundred times for introducing him or her to the delightful world of the hobbits - a beautifully illustrated, complete edition of J. R. R. Tolkien's classic The Lord of the Rings, is available (Houghton Mifflin, 1,193 pp., $60). This edition has everything: an index, maps, family trees, and specimens of the hobbit alphabet. Alan Lee's color-plate illustrations splendidly evoke a gray, gold, blue, and silver twilight realm that is at once mys terious yet quietly cheerful. With the appearance this year of its third and final volume, Michael Holroyd's brilliant and comprehensive biography of Bernard Shaw is now complete. This last volume, Bernard Shaw: The Lure of Fantasy, 1918-1951, (Random House, 544 pp., illustrated, $30), covers the 32-year period from 1918, when Shaw was 62 and a well-established celebrity, to his death in 1950 at the age of 94. These were the years in which Shaw wrote "Heartbreak House,Back to Methusaleh," "Saint Joan," and "The Apple Cart," won the N obel Prize (1925), and played his role of gadfly to the hilt. Holroyd deals deftly and intelligently with the various political and personal controversies that surrounded this man who took great pleasure in making waves. And last, but certainly not least, Martin Gilbert's magisterially condensed one-volume version of the definitive eight-volume biography of the century's preeminent statesman, Winston Churchill, Churchill: A Life (Henry Holt, 1,066 pp., illustrated, $35), makes the fruits of his long and meticulous scholarship available to the general reader who may feel a little daunted at the prospect of tackling the unabridged version.