Despite recent scholarly interest in Monteverdi's Selva morale et spirituale (1641), many aspects of this large, complex print remain enigmatic, and the intended context for much of the music in the collection has long been a matter of pure conjecture. Yet two of the most anomalous features of the Selva morale, the solo motets Ab aeterno ordinata sum and Pianto della Madonna, can now be placed into the context of the Habsburg court in Vienna during the reign of Ferdinand III (1637–57).
Both of these works play directly into the most important aspects of Habsburg Marian devotion. Ab aeterno is a setting of Proverbs 8:23–31, a text that although very rare for seventeenth-century motets would nonetheless have been widely understood as a celebration of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. The Pianto, a Latin contrafactum of Monteverdi's celebrated Lamento d'Arianna, would have been perfectly suited for the Habsburgs' Fifteen Mysteries Celebration, a Lenten devotion in praise of the Most Holy Rosary. Various types of evidence, including liturgical and other religious writings, Habsburg sermons, and additional musical works, support these interpretations of Monteverdi's motets and reveal their importance to the imperial court. That the composer did indeed include the motets in his print with the Habsburg court in mind is further indicated by similarities between the Selva morale and an earlier publication stemming directly from Ferdinand III's court: Giovanni Felice Sances's Motetti a voce sola of 1638.