The present work is apparently unpublished; the main protagonists are to be considered the work of Hendrick van Balen; the rest, it is argued here, is probably the work of Jan Brueghel I. Unfortunately the third digit of the date is not easily decipherable; it could have been either a '1' or a '2'; if the latter, then van Balen's collaborator could not have been Jan Brueghel I, who died in 1625, but his son Jan Brueghel II, whose style and handling were very similar to his father's and who, like his father, worked on occasion in association with van Balen.
The story of Venus's gift to her son, Aeneas, of armour made at her request by her husband Vulcan, is told by Virgil, Aeneid, VIII, 370ff. Jan Brueghel I and Hendrick van Balen's collaborative rendering of the theme developed from their depictions of the Element of Fire, which the god Vulcan personified, in a series of The Four Elements. Klaus Ertz dates the complete set in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj c. 1611 (see K. Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568-1625), Cologne, 1979, nos. 248-251). Here, Venus watches Vulcan at work on the armour; his forge is a vast, ruined, classical-style arcade, which connects with a drawing, described as of Roman ruins, attributed to Paul Bril (see Ertz, op. cit., fig. 444). Mount Etna is in the distance, as Vulcan's forge is described by Virgil as being in the vaults of Etna.
Far rarer in the two artists joint oeuvre is the depiction of Venus receiving the armour from Vulcan. The present lot is apparently not known to Ertz, but it closely relates to a picture of 1623 in a private collection (Ertz, op. cit., no. 382) for the right hand part, while the scene in the centre middle ground showing Mars(?) receiving his armour closely connects with the picture of 1613 or 1617 by Jan Brueghel in the Munich Alte Pinakothek (Ertz, op. cit., no. 276). The setting is similar to that used for The Element of Fire.
In the present lot, as in the painting of 1623, Vulcan is about to hand a shield to Venus, but first indicates to her the coat-of-arms at its centre. This is the coat-of-arms of the Kings of France, encircled by two chains, to one of which is attached the badge of the order of the St. Esprit.
The meaning of this remains obscure. The shield is a parade piece and differs from the elements of armour on the ground beside Vulcan, which are also decorated with fleurs-de-lys and are from the same garniture. It is unlikely that recorded here is the manufacture of a garniture for Louis XIII (1601-1643) of France since the armour appears to be Milanese of the second half of the sixteenth century. An entry in Jan Brueghel II's daybook for 1626 (see Ertz, op. cit., p. 380) records him as having collaborated with Hendrick van Balen in the execution of a Forge of Vulcan, in which Venus points to the arms of the Duke of Savoy. Evidently this lost painting was in the same vein as the present lot, with the arms of the Duke of Savoy replacing those of the House of Bourbon. The daybook entry does not specify that the painting was a special commission. In the left-hand corner are elements of tournament armour of the late fifteenth century, then in the Imperial Armoury in Brussels, parts of which still exist.