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.
Mary’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.
Anna 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
Here 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.
There are literally hundreds of paintings of Mary being presented at the temple by her parents.
In the Catholic and Orthodox church the day Mary went to live in the temple is celebrated as a liturgical holiday on November 21st.
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.
But………. 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
and 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.
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.
It 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.
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.