Who was Mary?

Mary, mother of God, Christianity, Christian art
"The Assumption of the Virgin" by Guido Reni (1580).
Musee des Beaux-Arts, Lyon

Last Updated 9:52 a.m. ET

(CBS News) Images of Mary have been plentiful throughout most of the history of Christianity. However, anyone seeking to put together a fully rounded portrait of Mary actually has very few clues to go on. Our Cover Story is reported by Martha Teichner:

"Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women..."

There is no trace of suffering, or even joy, in the alabaster Mary's face. But it is not the emptiness of her gaze people see as they pray; it is the Mary whose pain at the loss of her son, Jesus Christ, resembles their own.

Father Neil Connolly, pastor of St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church on the Lower East Side of New York City, said, "Mary's role for us as Christians is humanizing. It's somebody we can relate to."

He noted the second part of the "Hail Mary": "We say, 'Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.' It's a recognition of who Mary is. After Jesus, Mary is number one."

Twenty percent of all Roman Catholic places of worship in the U.S. -- nearly 4,000 -- are named for Mary.

"Her position also is a very iconic position, in the sense that people admire so much her life, or what we know about it," said Father Connolly.

But what exactly DO we know about it? Mainly, what little is written in the Gospels of the New Testament -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Mary (or Miriam. or Maryam) was from the little town of Nazareth, population maybe 400 in the first century. She was Jewish, and would have spoken Aramaic.

At the age of about 12, she would have been considered to be mature, said Professor Deirdre Good, a New Testament scholar at the Episcopal General Theological Seminary in New York City. "So that's when she was, as the New Testament describes her, betrothed to Joseph. She would have been a teenager, anywhere from 12 onwards.

"What Mary represents in Christian tradition is the meeting of God with humanity," said Good.

"The Bible": How a hit TV miniseries was born
Losing our religion
Controversial new theories on the Shroud of Turin
Re-examining the Catholic Church's celibacy rule

We learn from Luke that the angel Gabriel visits her, and announces that she will bear a child, and that this child is from God. "Mary says, 'How is this possible, because I don't know a man?'" said Good. "That's what the Greek actually says. It's translated euphemistically as 'I am a virgin.'"

The Gospels tell the Christmas story -- how Mary gives birth to Jesus. During his adult ministries, she is seldom mentioned, although Mark describes what has been interpreted as a rift between them.

"Jesus is teaching and somebody says, 'Your mother and brothers are outside and want to see you,'" said Professor Craig Evans, a New Testament scholar from Acadia University in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. "And he says, 'Well, who are my mother and brothers?' And he looks around at his disciples and he says, 'These are my mother and my brothers.'

"There's no interaction, and that definitely does point to a little bit of tension, at least at that point, between Jesus and his family."

Only one of the Gospels places Mary at the crucifixion, alongside the so-called "beloved disciple.".

"John -- perhaps the beloved disciple, perhaps not -- was told by the dying Jesus to take Mary and look after her," said Good. "The tradition is that John takes Mary to Ephesus."