The term Madonna in the sense of "picture or statue of the Virgin Mary" enters English usage in the 17th century, primarily in reference to works of the Italian Renaissance. In an Eastern Orthodox context, such images are typically known as Theotokos. "Madonna" may be generally used of representations of Mary, with or without the infant Jesus, is the focus and central figure of the image, possibly flanked or surrounded by angels or saints. Other types of Marian imagery have a narrative context, depicting scenes from the Life of the Virgin, e.g. the Annunciation to Mary, are not typically called "Madonna".
The earliest depictions of Mary date still to Early Christianity (2nd to 3rd centuries), found in the Catacombs of Rome. These are in a narrative context. The classical "Madonna" or "Theotokos" imagery develops from the 5th century, as Marian devotion rose to great importance after the Council of Ephesus formally affirmed her status as "Mother of God or Theotokos ("God-bearer") in 431. The Theotokos iconography as it developed in the 6th to 8th century rose to great importance in the high medieval period (12th to 14th centuries) both in the Eastern Orthodox and in the Latin spheres. According to a tradition recorded in the 8th century, Marian iconography goes back to a portrait drawn from life by Luke the Evangelist, with a number of icons (such as the Panagia Portaitissa) claimed to either represent this original icon or to be a direct copy of it.In the Western tradition, depictions of the Madonna were greatly diversified by Renaissance masters such as Duccio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Giovanni Bellini, Caravaggio and Rubens (and further by certain modernists, such as Salvador Dalí and Henry Moore) while Eastern Orthodox iconography adheres more closely to the inherited traditional types.
Liturgy depicting Mary as powerful intercessor (such as the Akathist) was brought from Greek into Latin tradition in the 8th century. The Greek title of Δεσποινα (Despoina) was adopted as Latin Domina "Lady". The medieval Italian Ma Donna pronounced [maˈdɔnna] ("My Lady") reflects Mea Domina, while Nostra Domina (δεσποινίς ἡμῶν) was adopted in French, as Nostre Dame "Our Lady".
These names signal both the increased importance of the cult of the virgin and the prominence of art in service to Marian devotion during the late medieval period. During the 13th century, especially, with the increasing influence of chivalry and aristocratic culture on poetry, song and the visual arts, the Madonna is represented as the queen of Heaven, often enthroned. Madonna was meant more to remind people of the theological concept which is placing such a high value on purity or virginity. This is also represented by the color of her clothing. The color blue symbolized purity, virginity, and royalty.
While the Italian term Madonna paralleled English Our Lady in late medieval Marian devotion, it was imported as an art historical term into English usage in the 1640s, designating specifically the Marian art of the Italian Renaissance. In this sense, "a Madonna", or "a Madonna with Child" is used of specific works of art, historically mostly of Italian works. A "Madonna" may alternatively be called "Virgin" or "Our Lady", but "Madonna" is not typically applied to eastern works; e.g. the Theotokos of Vladimir may in English be called "Our Lady of Vladimir", while it is less usual, but not unheard of, to refer to it as the "Madonna of Vladimir".