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From the 1520s onwards the Protestant Reformation reduced the demand for religious painting in some parts of Germany and Switzerland. The violent destruction of such works in Basel in 1529 hastened the return of Hans Holbein to the court of Henry VIII in London, where he went on to produce portraits combining psychological insight with dazzling illusionistic skill.

As well as portraits, court artists painted pictures with nude figures based on classical mythology. Such painters include Lucas Cranach, who worked for the Protestant Electors of Saxony in Southern Germany, and Hans von Aachen, who, later in the 16th century, was painter to the Habsburg Emperor Rudolph II in Prague.

During this period, the expressive depiction of landscape was a prominent feature of religious paintings by artists such as Albrecht Altdorfer, but, importantly, also a subject in its own right for the first time.