The Isenheim Altarpiece was executed for the hospital chapel of St Anthony's monastery in Isenheim in Alsace, which explains the presence of the plague saint, St Sebastian, and the patrons of the more austere and solitary forms of monasticism, St Antony Abbot and St Paul the Hermit.
His suffering is reflected in the traditional group of Mary, in the garb of a widow, fainting in the arms of St John the Evangelist, to whose care the Lord has commended her, and in the smaller figure of St Mary Magdalene with her vessel of ointments, wringing her hands in sorrow.
There is little doubt that the artist wanted the beholder of the altar to meditate on these words, which he emphasized so strongly by the pointing hand of St John the Baptist.
A long-haired female figure, wearing a crown and surrounded by a halo, appears in the doorway of the chapel. She is perhaps a female saint or, according to more recent interpretations, Mary herself before giving birth.
Mary, lovingly embracing her child, occupies the right half of the painting.
The Crucifixion is sombre and livid; inside, all is a magic glory of brilliant colour and light, and the final scenes of the Desert Saints are again lurid and eerie, with, in the Temptation, the kind of devil-haunted imagery that permeated Bosch's visions of sin.