Saint Lawrence was martyred for refusing to reveal what were thought to be treasures of the Church. In this work, however, the artist appears to imply a refusal to worship false gods, by the inclusion of the statue or idol on the right. Since Lawrence was martyred in Rome, the background architecture may well stand for the Forum. The picture was probably produced soon after Elsheimer settled in Rome in 1600.
The vivid depiction of the flaming gridiron in the background, on which the saint was to be martyred, is characteristic of Elsheimer's interest in contrasts between light and darkness.