In the Netherlands, the 16th century was a period of unrest, marked by religious and political conflicts. The Roman Catholic Church was forced on the defensive. By the end of the century though, it had gathered strength and responded with a large-scale counter-offensive in which Baroque art played an important propagandistic role. Gradually, Antwerp rose to the status of foremost city of the Southern Netherlands, a development to which both economic and political reasons contributed.
In the arts too, several major evolutions took place. For one, many painters started travelling to Italy, where they generally stayed for quite a while, and returned suffused with the ideas of the Renaissance, with its emphasis on nudes – man was now the measure of all things! – and the correct rendition of perspective. Secular subjects gained in importance. The highest on the scale of appreciation stood the so-called 'historiestukken' or history pieces, with scenes from the Bible, from classical mythology and from history. Then followed the 'figuurstukken' or figure pieces, with scenes from daily life, with a moralising message. More minor genres were the landscape, the still life, the floral piece and the portrait. Painters were judged primarily on their inventiveness, which is to say, their intellectual capacities and knowledge. What is striking about this period is the growing trend of specialisation: there were landscapists, animal painters, etc. They often collaborated on the same painting.