Mary’s Childhood

1674 st. anne and st. Joachim with mary Francesco Solimena_

1674 painting of Mary and her parents by Italian artist Francesco Solimena.

I’m preparing for a women’s retreat I’m speaking at in October and in one of my talks I will be looking at the childhood of Mary, Jesus’ mother as it is found in the Gospel of James.  The gospel was written within fifty years or so of the gospel of John in the New Testament and was held in high regard till the fifth century when the current New Testament canon was more or less finalized.  Pope Innocent I declared the Gospel of James untrustworthy in 405 AD, but it continued to be very popular in the Eastern Orthodox church and inspired literally thousands of pieces of art that depict Mary’s childhood.

Veit Stoss_St. Mary altar_joachim&Anne_Crawcow, Church of St. Mary_1477-89Mary’s father’s name was Joachim. Joachim was from Nazareth and Anne, Mary’s mother was from Bethlehem. We see Anne and Joachim here in a beautiful wood painting found in the Church of St. Mary in Krakow Poland.  It is by artist Veit Stoss and was created in 1480. 

Joachim and Anne's WeddingAnna and Joachim married when Joachim was 46 and Anne was 24.  Their wedding is depicted in this 1476 codex illustration by Cristoforo de Predis. 


Joachim and Anne settled in Jerusalem. They were good people known for their work helping the poor and for donating money to the temple. Joachim was a wealthy sheep owner and often supplied the priests with sheep to use for sacrifices in the synagogue.  Anne and Joachim loved each other and were devoted to one another but had to wait twenty years for their daughter Mary to be born.  We see the couple above in a 1528 painting by Italian artist Ambrosius Benson. The Embrace of Saint Joachim and Saint Anna is in the collection of The Prada in Madrid.

giotti anna and joachim at the Golden GateThe conception of Anne and Joachim’s daughter Mary was something of a miracle. That miracle is recorded in a beautiful 1305 painting by Giotto di Bondone called Legend of St. Joachim and St. Anne Meeting at the Golden Gate. The Gospel of James records that an angel directed Anne and Joachim to go separately to the gate of the temple. When they met they kissed and Anne became pregnant. 

The Birth of the Virgin by Wolf Traut (1478-1520)According to the Gospel of James Anne breastfed her daughter right after she came into the world and midwives were in attendance.  There are hundreds of paintings depicting the birth of Mary. Above is The Birth of the Virgin by German artist Wolf Traut painted in 1513


and this is The Nativity of the Virgin by Flemish artist Earsmus Quellinus painted in 1665.  

russian orthodox icon mary as a child

 Russian Orthodox Church icon depicting Mary as a little girl.

Anne and Joachim promised God that because they had been blessed with a child they would give her in service to the temple. In this icon of the Russian Orthodox Church we see Mary as a little girl. By the time she was six months old Mary could already walk seven steps. She had many playmates and her first birthday was celebrated in style with a big dinner.  By the way in the Catholic Church Mary’s birthday is celebrated on September 8, the same day as my husbands’ birthday.

mary and parents by Jose Alejandro ArangoHere we see an image of Mary and her parents by Mexican artist Jose Alejandro Arango. At age two Joachim thought it was time they took Mary to begin her service in the temple but Anne begged him to let Mary stay home another year and so they waited till she was three years old.

presentation of the virgin done in 1534 by Titian

First Presentation of the Virgin by the Italian artist Titian done in 1534

There are literally hundreds of paintings of Mary being presented at the temple by her parents.  

Presentation of Mary at the Temple by another Italian artist Gaspare Diziani some two hundred years later in 1730.

Presentation of Mary at the Temple by  Italian artist Gaspare Diziani in 1730.

 In the Catholic and Orthodox church the day Mary went to live in the temple is celebrated as a liturgical holiday on November 21st.

the education of the virgin in the hermitage guido rene 1641

In this 1641 painting Education of the Virgin Mary Italian artist Guido Reni shows Mary with the other young woman in the temple. This painting is in the collection of the Hermitage in Moscow.

Mary lived at the temple till she was twelve. She was probably part of a special school for girls there, where she was taught all kinds of creative skills singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. She will have learned weaving and spinning as well as practical things like healing illnesses and had an opportunity to study the Scriptures and to learn about the customs and history behind Jewish holidays. According to the book of James Mary stayed at the temple till she became betrothed to Joseph. 

education of the virgin Eugène Delacroix 1842 FrenchBut………. in many famous paintings Anna and Joachim are depicted as being a big part of Mary’s life right up until her marriage.  We see that in this 1842 painting of Mary and Anna called Education of the Virgin by French artist Eugene Delacroix

The Education of Mary Jean Jouvenet 1700 Uffiziand in this 1700 work called The Education of Mary by another French artist Jean Jouvenet which is part of the collection at the Uffizi gallery in Florence.

The Education of the Virgin and is by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. It dates from 1625 and is in the Royal Museum in Brussels.This painting is called The Education of the Virgin and is by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. It dates from 1625 and is in the Royal Museum in Brussels.It shows Mary as a young adult with her parents just before her marriage. 

El Greco’s The Holy Family painted in 1592..pngIt should be noted that there are many artists who have portrayed Anna and Joachim taking a very active role in the care and raising of their grandson Jesus. Like in Spanish artist El Greco’s The Holy Family painted in 1592.

Holy Family with Saint Anne and Saint Joachim by Lorenzo Lotto

Holy Family with Saint Anne and Saint Joachim by Italian artist Lorenzo Lotto

The books chosen for the Bible tell the stories of many men’s childhoods- that of Moses and David and Joseph in the Old Testament and of course the childhoods’ of Jesus and of Timothy in the New Testament but there are only fleeting references to the childhoods’ of women.  That makes the account of Mary’s childhood in the Gospel of James even more interesting to explore. 

Other posts………..

A Preganant Mary and A Mary With Knives In Her Heart

Thinking About Mary On Good Friday

The Pool of Bethesda



Filed under Art, Religion

3 responses to “Mary’s Childhood

  1. Ruth

    Is the Gospel of James different than ‘James’ in the New Testament? I’m asking because I don’t see or get your reference to Mary’s childhood in ‘James’. Since I won’t be able to be at the women’s retreat (I’m in Alberta), please help me find this info by sending me a personal email. Thanks.


    • The Gospel of James is very different than the book of James in the Bible. As I said in my blog post the Gospel of James is one of many books that were popular in the early Christian church but which for various reasons be they political or religious were disregarded at various points along the way to the Council of Trent in 1546 when the canon of the Bible was finally officially determined. There is a great deal of renewed interest in these other gospels which tell many of the same stories as the ones we have in our Bible but in a different way. For example Heather Barkman a professor in the religion department at the University of Manitoba is teaching a course on these discarded gospels at McNally Robinson this fall. I am so sorry I can’t take it because of our travel plans. You can read more about the Gospel of James at many different sites online.


  2. Manju Silas

    Hi, this is Manju Silas. I just want to ask you that where did you get this information from. Bible does not say more about Mother Mary. Please help me to find out more. Thanks


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