In an article published in Tableau (November 1987, p. 1) Albert Blankert describes the meaning of this complex composition, in which van Balen's figures cavort in Jan Brueghel's verdant forest glade 'reminiscent of the velvet lining of an open jewelbox from which a rich display of precious stones flashes before our eyes. The sparkling colours and the exquisite refinement in the rendering of a rich variety of naturalistic detail in the human figures, animals, vegetation and inanimate objects makes us at first sight overlook the improbable character of the scene' (Blankert, op. cit.).
Prior to the 1560s Platonic and Christian doctrine had taught that the senses, while not directly leading to evil and folly, should not be trusted. But the new empiricism of the Renaissance gave way to a more positive and optimistic view of man's own faculties and it is this spirit that is brought to the fore in the present work. The personification of the senses as a series of beautiful women in antique dress, emerged in Antwerp first with the printmakers of the 1560s (C. Nordenfalk, 'The Five Senses in Flemish Art before 1600', Netherlandish Mannerism, Papers at a Symposium in Nationalmuseum Stockholm, 21-22 September, 1984, Stockholm, 1985, pp. 135-154). By circa 1617-18, when the present work was executed, the tradition was well established. Although in his monograph on Jan Brueghel the Elder, Klaus Ertz suggests that the present figures might represent Apollo with Venus, Flora, Veres, Discord, a nymph and objects alluding to the Liberal Arts (Ertz, op. cit., p. 362), the main protagonists in the present work were, in fact, all represented in prints, many of which bore inscriptions leaving no doubt as to their meaning (see, for instance, Adriaen Collaert's print after Adam van Noort's The Five Senses accompanying Man).
The composition focuses on the seated man on the right who is attended by flying putti and who is paid court by five women, each championed by her own circle of putti. Although Ertz suggested the crowned man may be meant to represent Apollo (K. Ertz, op. cit., p. 362), Blankert convincingly identifies him, not as a god, but as a personification of Man himself. Sight stands to his right holding up a mirror, and Touch here identified by a writhing snake held in her raised hand, has her more common attributes, a parrot, and a goat to her left. In the foreground a Rubensian nymph reclines while her attendant putti bring her fruit and drink. The monkey, known as the gourmet among animals, further identifies her as a personification of Taste. In the left corner a scantily clad harpist can be identified as the sense of Hearing, and to her left holding an extravagant vase of flowers, a nymph representing Smell approaches the table. If his intention was not clear enough, Brueghel further underlined the attention and honor being paid by the Five Senses to Man by closely surrounding him with five animals traditionally associated with the senses: an Eagle (Sight), a Deer (Hearing), a Dog (Smell), a Monkey (Taste) and, under his feet, a Turtle (Touch). The clear message is that no longer are the senses the dangerous deceivers that they were once thought to be, but they are loyal and dedicated servants at the Court of Man. Man, the all powerful, rules these tamed faculties with temperance, here symbolized by the tiny pair of compasses held in his right hand.