Susan Merriam notes that this early flower garland differs from those made after it (and other flower garlands in general) in its construction: van Balen's figures are painted on silver and inset into Brueghel's portion. Merriam describes the inset portion as "more like a cameo in an elaborate setting than a painting" and as having a trompe l'eoil effect that heightens the object's tactile quality. See Susan Merriam, Seventeenth Century Flemish Garland Paintings: Still Life, Vision, and the Devotional Image (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2012), 21-22.
Susan Merriam and Pamela Jones both cite a letter from Brueghel to Borromeo regarding the inclusion of the landscape in the background: "I will not fail to work hard on the little painting of the compartment of flowers in which, according to your Illustrious Lordship's orders, I will accomodate the Madonna within the landscape." (Archival Collection: Lettere deretti al Cardinal Federico Borromeo, Ambros, Ms. G198bis-inf:239) See Susan Merriam, Seventeenth Century Flemish Garland Paintings, 21-22 and Pamela M. Jones, Federico Borromeo and the Ambrosian: Art Patronage and Reform in Seventeenth-Century Milan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 84.
This painting was sent to Borromeo in 1607 but was then returned with a request that they put a landscape behind the figure of the madonna. In his "Musaeum" Borromeo mentions other garlands painted by Brueghel in his possession, but this is the only one that can be exactly identified.
Brueghel to Borromeo, February 1608. “…non manco d’industriarmi introno al quadretto del compertemento delli fiori, nel quale secondo l’ordined VS lll.ma accomodero dentro una Madonna con paiesetto” (Crivelli, pg.100).
Letter to Borromeo. 2 February 1612. “mi stringe tanto a dichiarar il pretzo dela girlanda de fiori, diro con liberta di vera amicisia, che persone al mondo non la caurebbe di mia mano per manco di ducento fillippi” (Crivelli, pg. 189.)
Letter to Borromeo, 12 October 1618. “come io ho fatto una ghirlands di fiori di mia mano” (Crivelli, pg. 248).
Letter to Borromeo, 22 August 1625. “tra le quali e una girlands de fr.utti con molti angeli et la Madonna, ma e ordinate tutto in un altra maniera che quello delli firoi che tiene v.s. lll.mo in la biblioteca” (Crivelli, pg. 340).