Courtesy David Cartlidge

When Mary was only six months old, Anna put her on the ground “to see if she could stand.” Mary “walked seven steps and went to her mother’s arms” (James 6:1–2). Dating to about 1320, the mosaic (shown here) from the Kariye Museum in Istanbul, highlights a central element of an encomium (a text that praises) narrative such as the Infancy Gospel of James: the precocity of the central figure. Mary takes her first steps much earlier than do most infants. At the same time, the image emphasizes the normality of the family: A child’s first steps are a cherished remembrance in any home.

The scene is common in eastern church art but not western. Sometimes a maidservant assists the child, as shown here; sometimes an angel. Mary generally looks older than her six months.