As recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Venus, the goddess of Love, encountered Pluto, the king of the Underworld, riding in his chariot. Seeking to extend her power over his dominion, she instructed her son Cupid to shoot the god with one of his arrows. Venus further decreed that Proserpina, the chaste daughter of the corn-goddess Ceres, would fall victim to Pluto's passion. The maiden was frolicking on the shores of lake Pergusa, gathering flowers, when Pluto gazed upon her and, smitten by her beauty, swept in and carried her off in his chariot as Ceres and her companions looked on in horror. This cabinet-sized copper panel by the Flemish Baroque painter, Frans Francken II, represents the subsequent moment in the story, when the Sicilian nymph Cyane attempts to block Pluto’s chariot as he travels across her lagoon, chastising the god and commanding him to beg Proserpina for her consent. Enraged, Pluto strikes the water with his scepter and opens a chasm into the Underworld through which they descend.
Frans Francken’s vision of Hades departs from Classical sources, taking inspiration from the fire and brimstone-filled Christian interpretation of Hell. It is a ruinous world of ragged cliffs and collapsing architecture ablaze with red, orange and brilliant white flames. In the center background, a demonic ferryman brings a group of cowering souls to the shore, where a giant shepherd directs them to their eternal fate. Winged creatures combining the bodies of insects, birds and fish fill the air, tormenting the terrified inhabitants of this nightmarish world, which will be Proserpina’s new home. Francken painted the same subject on at least one other occasion: a copper panel in the Kurpfälzische Museum, Heidelberg , which Ursula Härting dates to c. 1605 (see U. Härting, Frans Francken II, Freren, 1989, pp. 50, 337, no. 335, fig. 44). Though larger in scale, the figures of Pluto, Proserpina, the chariot and the three horses in the Heidelberg painting are nearly identical to the figures in the present composition.