The Story Behind the Betrothal of the Virgin Mary

Today is the traditional feast day of the Betrothal of our favorite married couple, the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph! The two people who were chosen by God to raise God Himself, Jesus Christ.

So, in honor of their anniversary, I would like to share this artwork of their betrothal. Check it out!

The Marriage of the Virgin, by Michelino da Besozzo, c. 1430. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, United States. Via
The Marriage of the Virgin, by Michelino da Besozzo, c. 1430. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, United States.

Now, this there are a lot of pictures of this subject, but I chose this one in particular because it seemed to portray the whole scene true to the story that is behind the betrothal.

And as you can imagine, there is quite a story behind their betrothal! You can find the story in the Protoevangelium of James, which is a book that, while not considered Sacred Scripture, was written early on in Christianity and contains some of the early traditions of Christianity that we still have as a Church. The story of their betrothal, as told by the Protoevangelium of James, goes like this:

And Mary was in the temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there, and she received food from the hand of an angel. And when she was twelve years old there was held a council of the priests, saying: Behold, Mary has reached the age of twelve years in the temple of the Lord. What then shall we do with her, lest perchance she defile the sanctuary of the Lord? And they said to the high priest: You stand by the altar of the Lord; go in, and pray concerning her; and whatever the Lord shall manifest unto you, that also will we do. And the high priest went in, taking the robe with the twelve bells into the holy of holies; and he prayed concerning her. And behold an angel of the Lord stood by him, saying unto him: Zacharias, Zacharias, go out and assemble the widowers of the people, and let them bring each his rod; and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be. And the heralds went out through all the circuit of Judæa, and the trumpet of the Lord sounded, and all ran.

And Joseph, throwing away his axe, went out to meet them; and when they had assembled, they went away to the high priest, taking with them their rods. And he, taking the rods of all of them, entered into the temple, and prayed; and having ended his prayer, he took the rods and came out, and gave them to them: but there was no sign in them, and Joseph took his rod last; and, behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph’s head. And the priest said to Joseph, You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord. But Joseph refused, saying: I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel. And the priest said to Joseph: Fear the Lord your God, and remember what the Lord did to Dathan, and Abiram, and Korah; Numbers 16:31-33 how the earth opened, and they were swallowed up on account of their contradiction. And now fear, O Joseph, lest the same things happen in your house. And Joseph was afraid, and took her into his keeping. And Joseph said to Mary: Behold, I have received you from the temple of the Lord; and now I leave you in my house, and go away to build my buildings, and I shall come to you. The Lord will protect you.

And so in the picture, you’ll see St. Joseph depicted as an older man with the Virgin Mary as a young women. St. Joseph is holding a staff that has a dove sitting on it. Plus, to make it absolutely clear that the dove is a miraculous sign, the dove has a halo around it. Even though it does not explicitly symbolize the Holy Spirit, there is no doubt that it is a messenger of a holy message and that the choice of St. Joseph is a divinely inspired choice.

Between the couple is a priest who is committing the couple in what we would call a betrothal ceremony, but what was actually the first part of the marriage ceremony at the time of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph. Then there would be a period where they would get to know each other, followed by yet another ceremony in which the husband would officially take the woman into his home in the event that we understand as the actual union of marriage. So, you’ll notice some artworks, like this one, are called “The Marriage of the Virgin” while others are called “The Betrothal of the Virgin.” Both refer to the same event, and both are correctly titled. Just, it’s not something we would consider marriage in our modern sense.

Near St. Joseph are a bunch of young men who look incredulously at the staffs that they hold. To the left of St. Joseph, a man with a sword looks at his staff, which is broken, in confusion. Others look at the tips of their staffs, wonder and confusion on their faces. It is clear that they are wondering why they were not chosen while this old man was picked instead.

Then, behind Mary are veiled women who look upon the marriage with approval as they watch the betrothal ceremony take place.

As far as the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph? Their heads are bowed in acceptance with divine will, and perhaps in wonder at the whole event, which was was clearly divinely inspired!

At the time, I don’t think either of them knew what exactly they were getting into. Honestly, who does when they first get married? But this is especially true with the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph! At this point in time, this was before the Angel Gabriel came to Mary to tell her that she would give birth to Jesus… an event which the Virgin Mary was probably astounded by!

And yet, God was with them. And He would stay with them and guide them through all these times in their lives, even when things might have seemed super confusing. Especially when the Baby Jesus entered their lives!

Today, may we pray that God continues to guide married couples and their families through whatever trials and tribulations come their way!

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of four, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer.

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