MONUMENTS & MAIDENS. By Marina Warner. Atheneum. 417 pp. $25.

MARINA WARNER'S Monuments & Maidens is an allegory within an allegory. Overtly about representations, it is covertly about flesh and blood -- the transformations from reality to art to reality. Following Warner's labyrinthine path through the history of societal ambivalence about women, we can almost see a rosy glow spreading across the scholarly text as the subject warms and comes to life.

Allegory, Warner points out, means "other speech." It draws its sustenance from reality, but when reality is distorted, the result is empty stereotypes instead of fertile symbols. Pandora, Eve, Galatea, for instance, are all manufactured products standing in for the manipulated foreigner or "other." In the Judeo-Christian tradition, as Warner sees through it, woman is a real doll -- the "first imitation," the "first deception." Eve, in fact, was a second, because Lilith, her predecessor, insisted on equality with Adam and refused to take her subordinate position lying down. She was transformed into a bad girl, succubus and baby-eater, and the patriarchy came up with the supposedly pliant and recumbent Eve. Yet even Eve found the seeds of rebellion, and Warner concludes that "women's sexuality lies at the origin of social institutions," that the Fall "started a new era of consciousness beyond the limits of the 'natural' life of Eden."

Although its subject is visual imagery, Monuments & Maidens is not an "art book," but rather uses artifacts to trace the relations between cultural convention and the social reality of the female condition. From vaguely recalled prehistoric goddesses to Delacroix's La Libert,e (the revolutionary Marianne, based, at least, on ordinary contemporary women) to the pompously unreal icon of the Statue of Liberty, Warner exposes the social motives beneath the allegorical veneers. The book is really one long digression from conventional history, one thing leading to another in a quintessentially female bricolage.

Each chapter starts slowly under the burden of fact and arbitrary references. When this web of detail finds its center in one figure or theme, however, it expands into fascinating patterns. The main weakness is a plethora of description, which should have been carried by the illustrations. Warner can wallow in the weighty absurdity of her statuesque models, her prose sometimes paralleling the voluptuous curves, gargantuan limbs, tousled curls and plump cheeks of academic sculpture. Yet the black and white photographs themselves are secondary -- merely adequate, academically presented. Ideally, their design would have mirrored the intricate collage of the text.

One of Warner's most provocative disquisistions concerns the tension between "maternal tenderness and Amazonian zeal," also reflected in images of chastity and seduction, noble nudity and ignoble nakedness. She traces the history of the "manly" woman as paragon of "feminine" virtues, from Daddy's Girl Athena to empty-headed, spear-bearing Britannia to Maggie Thatcher -- natural heiress to the conservative vision, herself armored in high heels and frozen coiffure to conceal and protect that soft, "leaky, vulnerable bag of skin and bone and flesh" so despised by medieval churchmen.

THE THATCHER icon is juxtaposed against the determined leaderlessness of the women at Greenham Peace Camp, assailing the hard core of nuclear missiles with campfires (the ancient hearth), mirrors (literally held up to their military opponents), and the web ("fragile in its parts and strong in its whole"). The Greenham women flaunt sexual difference, where Thatcher co-opts it. Warner has doubts about their "woman-identified" ideology, but she allows the Greenham women to represent Everywoman in her allegory -- flesh and blood, like Delacroix's Marianne.

On the other hand, she notes, "If women had had a vote or a voice, Marianne would have been harder to accept as a universal figure" of Liberty. "Could a variation of Delacroix's revolutionary have been placed at the gates of the New World? It seems unlikely." Similarly, the biblical tale of Judith, virtuous widow who used her sexual wiles to kill Holofernes and save her people, becoming a forerunner of the Mother of God through heroic murder, is safer buried in mythology. Last year the Reagan Administration refused to accept as ambassador from Nicaragua Nora Astorga -- a woman who had played Judith's role in the execution of a Somocista general.

The importance of Monuments & Maidens is the way it encourages us to read symbolically the art and media images with which we are surrounded, to see Dynasty in dynastic perspective. Its message resonates in daily experience, serving as a reminder that skin-deep means more than cosmetics. The book ends with -- but does not attempt to expand upon -- the last two decades, when women have begun to dismount from their pedestals and speak from within those marble prisons: "Pandora and Eve and Tuccia and Liberty and Athens and the other virgins, Justice and Temperance, and Lady Wisdom and naked Truth. Their voices are hoarse from long disuse, but they are gaining in volume and pitch and tone. . . . And they are saying, Listen."

Lucy Lippard is the author of "Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory," "Get the Message? A Decade of Art for Social Change" and other books.