The painting is interpreted as symbolic of the turbulent relationship between the artist and his father. Ernst’s father was a staunch catholic. In this painting he replaces the classic image of the Virgin Mary holding the crucified body of Jesus (pietà) with the figures of the artist's father and the artist himself in those respective positions. The expressions on both faces are blank as though in a state of sleepwalking.
In the background is a wall on which is drawn a figure descending a flight of stairs. This figure also appears to be sleepwalking and has a bandaged head. According to the British newspaper The Guardian, this figure may represent Sigmund Freud. That same article suggests that it may also represent the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who was wounded in the head during World War I.
This painting is an example of the early period of the surrealist movement. Its title reflects the revolutionary sentiments of the movement, and in particular of its founder André Breton. This image is notable for its combination of heavily textured surfaces and sharp, hand-drawn outlines.