Using only pen and ink, Lorenzo Costa portrayed the cradle of Christian monasticism, the Thebaid, a Roman division of the upper Nile River valley. Beginning with Saint Paul of Thebes and Saint Anthony of Egypt in the 200s, Christian monks retreated to this region, to live a solitary life of ascetism and prayer. Over time, these monks, also known as "desert fathers," organized into communities.
Costa's scratchy, energetic draftmanship created a bustling composition filled with monks and a landscape riddled with the grottoes, huts, and caves they used for prayer and shelter. He portrayed an imaginary scene, incorporating a variety of monastic saints and spanning different periods. In the upper left background, Saints Paul and Anthony are shown seated, receiving bread from a raven through which God provided nourishment. Mary Magdalene, who supposedly lived her later years alone in the desert, stands near the river to the right. The landscape itself appears more European than Egyptian, perhaps reflecting Costa's native countryside around Bologna, Italy, rather than the real Thebaid.