|The Virgin Mary's Birth, Childhood,
Betrothal, and Marriage
Echoing the story of Hannah (cached), the literary sources say that the Virgin Mary's parents were childless for many years until St. Anne vowed that if they were given a child they would give it to the service of the Temple. (See the page for St. Anne.)
Neither scripture nor hagiography provides any details about the Virgin Mary's actual birth. Given this silence, medieval and later images of the birth adopt the conventions of the earliest images of the nativity of Jesus: The mother is seen reclining just after the birth while midwives pour water to wash the child in a basin (example, and compare a Nativity of Christ from the same period). One 13th-century panel even emphasizes the visual parallels between the two births by setting them on either side of an image of the enthroned Virgin. What keeps the two Nativities distinct is that Mary's is in a real bed, often a sumptuous one (example), in a structure that is emphatically a private home rather than a stable or cave (example). (But see a 16th century example which portrays the mother quite differently.)
After the Virgin Mary was born, the Golden Legend and its sources say her parents kept her for three years and then took her to the Temple, where she eagerly walked up the 15 steps by herself. This is a favored episode in the art, usually presented as a narrative (example) but in at least one case symbolically.
As the story continues, the Virgin Mary reaches marriageable age and the high priest seeks a sign to advise whether she should be given in marriage despite her parents' vow. An oracle instructs that every man of the house of David should bring a rod to the Temple; one of the rods will flower, and its owner is to be betrothed to the Virgin. Reluctantly, Joseph brings his rod. It flowers, a dove comes to rest on it, and so he is chosen. Giotto includes this episode in the Arena Chapel series, and in portraits of St. Joseph the rod is his attribute.
The literary sources pass quickly over what one of them calls "the usual ceremonies of betrothal," but in the art the marriage of the Virgin is a common subject. In this episode Joseph usually holds his flowering rod, with or without dove, and there may or may not be a ring. The high priest is sometimes dressed in the artist's idea of what such an official would have worn in Mary's time (example), and sometimes in the garb of a contemporary bishop (example).
After the betrothal but before the marriage came the question of Mary's pregnancy. In both the Protevangelium of James (chapter 16) and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (chapter 12) the couple are summoned to explain themselves to the high priest, who is incredulous and orders them to drink "the water of drinking of the Lord," which supposedly would cause a sign to appear on their faces if they were lying. No such sign appears, so they are exonerated. This episode is illustrated in a 6th century ivory in the Louvre.
Feast of the Birth of Mary: September 8
Predella panel of Mary's birth
From the same predella, the Presentation
A 16th century fresco of The Nativity of the Virgin
The Presentation of the Virgin: fresco by the same artist
Mosaic of the Presentation, St. Peter's, Rome
At left: Francisco de Zurbarán, The Young Virgin
The fourth-century Gospel of the Nativity of Mary (cached) is the main source for the Golden Legend's account (html or pdf) of the Virgin's early years. Other sources for the story are the 2nd-century Protevangelium of James and the 3rd- or 4th-century Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (cached).