The Byzantine icon of the Madonna Nicopeia in Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy.
Icons of Mary holding her son Jesus have been popular, since the 431 AD Council of Ephesus declared Mary to be the Mother of God. The word "icon" derives from the Greek "eikon" meaning any image or representation, but the word usually is restricted to a religious image. Although the word "icon" applies to all kinds of religious images -- those painted on wooden panels (icons proper), on walls (frescoes), those fashioned from small glass tesserae (mosaics) or carved in stone, metal or ivory -- the term is it most often with paintings on wood.
Early Christian images appeared around the 3rd century. That may indicate that for the first 200 years of its existence, Christianity was probably influenced by the Old Testament 2nd Commandment, "Thou shall not make unto thee any graven images" (Exodus 20:4).
"When Christians turned to promote their religion, they found many examples in the earlier art of religions in the art of the Roman Empire. For their images, they incorporated various elements from a number of sources: from Hellenic art they borrowed gracefulness & clarity of composition; from the Roman art they took the hierarchical placement of figures & symmetry of design; from Syrian art they took dynamic movements & energy of the represented characters; and from Egyptian funeral portraits they borrowed large almond-shaped eyes, long, thin noses, & small mouths. By the time Christianity became the official religion of the Byzantine Empire (313), the iconography was developing vigorously & the basic compositional schemes were well established." (From Alexander Boguslawski)
Some speculate that the earliest icon painters in Russia were Greeks or Byzantinize South Slavs. They are thought to have become teachers of the 1st Russian icon painters instructing them in the traditional Byzantine style. Their compositions were monumental, uncluttered, & simple. Some early icons exhibit close affinities with the art of classical antiquity. However, the Russians quickly abandoned the Byzantine tradition of portraying a severe religious images & developed more life-like depictions.