The Renaissance image of the Maria lactans presents Mary in a very human -- even fleshy -- light. In this type of altarpiece painting, the iconic figure of the holy Virgin bares her often full and perfectly rounded breast. She offers it to the Child in her lap, but also seems to offer her breast to the congregation of worshippers. The imagery of a popular Marian Office antiphon, Nesciens mater virgo virum, mingles the Virgin's transendence and her fleshly presence. It claims she brought forth Christ without the human pains of childbirth, calls him the "eternal king of angels" taking "heavenly milk"; nevertheless, it calls forth this very human image of a child nursing at the breast of His mother. Jean Mouton, court composer to the French Royal Chapel, set this antiphon text in an eight-part motet. It, too, breathes both human grace and superhuman abstraction.
Mouton constructs the eight voices of his Nesciens mater according to a strict canon: only four voices are notated and the other four imitate them at the interval of a fifth two measures later. In addition to this dazzling compositional restriction, he closely derives one voice from a pre-existing cantus firmus. The written tenor voice sings a paraphrase of the plainchant melody associated with the antiphon text. Despite these cerebral strictures and challenges, however, he composes a piece that exudes grace; all eight voices shift in and out of the textures without a hint of awkwardness. He exploits the canonic echoes masterfully, often allowing new phrases of text to slice through the texture by a shift in vocal register and melodic character that is then reenforced by repetition in a higher voice. Mouton's last patron, the French King François I, favored the motet genre; he preferred to attend a spoken Mass during which his personal choir sang motets rather than a High polyphonic setting of the Mass Ordinary. Nesciens mater must have caressed the king's ears.