Lurid, bizarre and often dreamlike, Bosch's imagery has fascinated and confounded viewers for centuries. This lively painting is replete with such imagery, much of it drawn from known works by the master. The viewer is reminded of the terrors awaiting those who succumb to the worldly temptations that lead to spiritual corruption, and the fate that will befall earthly sinners in the afterlife. For Bosch, punishable sins came in many forms. Gluttony, for example, is personified by the figure at lower left with his back to the viewer, begging with an empty plate while draped in an abundance of sausage links. Behind the monstrous fish and dead tree at left lurks a terrifying hybrid creature, whose devilish offspring – surely the product of some sexual perversion stemming from unbridled lust – suckle in the dim light. And as a warning against foolishness and folly, the partially submerged figure at lower right wears an inverted funnel on his head, marking its wearer as an inept trickster certain to meet an unhappy demise.
Surrounded by worldly temptations and wickedness, the monumental figure of Saint Christopher stands at the center of the composition, a model for achieving salvation through the power of good deeds. According to legend, Saint Christopher wanted only to serve the most powerful of the earth, roaming the world as he sought a master. One night, a child called him to be carried across a wide river. Upon agreeing to this request, Saint Christopher found himself bearing an immensely heavy load, as alluded to in the present image by his staff, which bends under the great weight. His passenger, it turns out, is Christ himself, who now shares in the burden of the earth, as symbolized here by the shining orb he carries in his hands. As a result of his good deed Saint Christopher – whose name literally means “Christ-bearer” – has since become known as the patron saint of travelers.