The Bible's New Testament contains many examples of Christ teaching by means of parables: simple, memorable stories based on everyday occurrences which were used as a way of addressing larger religious themes. The parable of the rich man is told in Luke 16:19-23. At the gate of the rich man lay a poor beggar named Lazarus; ill and hungry, he hoped in vain for some charity from the rich man. Lazarus died and was carried to heaven, but as punishment for his selfishness, the rich man suffered the torments of hell. The parable is usually interpreted as a caution against avarice and an exhortation to human charity.
Teniers depicts the rich man in accordance with the biblical account ('clothed in purple and fine linen'). Vaguely 'Oriental' garments were used to indicate the exotic distant past; gold chains and rich fabrics suggest the man's jealously-guarded wealth. Although the biblical text does not describe the entrance to hell, Teniers conceived it as a cave mouth surrounded by demons and monsters. Worry creasing his brow, the rich man shrinks fearfully from the punishment that awaits him.
The bizarre hybrid monsters in Teniers's painting ultimately derive from the creations of Hieronymus Bosch (living 1474; died 1516), although he may have been influenced more directly by Cornelis Saftleven (e.g. 'The Rich Man being led to Hell', 1631, Warsaw, National Museum). It has been suggested that there was a pendant to this work showing the rich man at table, but no such picture is now known. This painting is dated to about 1647, the date of Teniers's 'Temptation of Saint Anthony' (Berlin), in which comparable monsters appear. The Antwerp coat of arms is branded on the reverse of the panel.