In use as early as the 3rd century AD (the official proclamation of Mary as "God Bearer" was at the council of Ephesus in 431) the Theotokos is the typical Orthodox depiction of the Virgin and her son. A combination of two Greek words, Θεός "god" and τόκος "childbirth", the image conveys primarily the theological doctrine of the hypostatic union; Jesus as both god and man. The general formula for the artwork consists of a regally seated woman, clothed in black, dark blue, or dark red, holding, not a child, but a little prince or king on her lap. Normally the figures are surrounded by the uniform golden background of the celestial illumination. The Madonna and Child is a later, Renaissance depiction, the title stemming from the Italian word for "My Lady" (ma donna). This formula for depicting the Virgin and her son normally involves a naked or lightly clothed baby, more relaxed posture of the figures, softer colors, and a heightened sense of realism in figure and background. Though both forms of artwork are depicting the Virgin and Child, there is a great chasm of difference between the two forms of art.
The Theotokos has the Virgin Mary looking directly at the viewer. Her eyes are penetrating and imperial and the viewer is put in the position of vassal or servant appealing to a Queen (a Regina, or Βασίλισσα, in Greek). Moreover, the Theotokos forces the viewer to look upon a certain truth, not just the regal nature of the mother of god but the "otherness" of the divine realm (Kadosh, in Jewish, or Άγιος, in Greek) .
Both she and the child Jesus are very stylized, rigid, as though presenting a reality that is idyllic but very removed from common human toil and suffering. Yet the depictions are beautiful. They glow with gold and light, a static gold patina suffusing the background and reminding us of the eternal brilliance of the divine realm.
Both theotokos and child are also direct representations of the geometry that organizes their composition. The three circles of earth, heaven, and enlightenment; the golden rectangle surrounding them; the golden spiral emanating out from her eye to her halo to his little body. The whole work isn't just based on geometry, it is geometry; as though the pure world of mathematics and the complex world of the physical are separated only by a thin veil.
Nor is the theology of the composition without meaning. Not only does the Theotokos depict the intense doctrine of the hypostatic union, so clearly laid out at the council of Nicea in 325, it also embodies the relationship of Christ to the Earth Mother, and thus the metaphysical to the physical world. The deep black of the Virgin's robe indicates that she is a form, a trope, of the ancient image of the chaos mother; Tiamat. In the ancient world this figure was not "evil" but was darkness and chaos, Tehom, the deep, out of which life emerges and by which life is eventually engulfed.
Yet in the Theotokos the Tehom (Tiamat) has been transformed into the mother of god. She is our queen, our Vasilissa, but is herself the being out of which the salvific form of the incarnate word emerges - surrounding him, engulfing him, yet also enthroning him. Just as the old formula of the sun god defeating the Tiamat dragon, the Christos "walks" as it were through the middle of the defeated/converted darkness.
What does this say about our suffering and the darkness (The Chaos) that begins and ends life? Is it made holy by Christ? Is her true nature revealed as no longer sinister and horrific as much as imperial?
Here the eyes of the Virgin are frequently averted from the viewer of the painting - looking at the child, off into the distance, or down in modesty. The viewer stands not as suppliant to a Regina but as onlooker or witness to some miraculous reality. Yet the viewer could just as easily be looking at his own wife and child, or sister and nephew.
Both mother and child are much softer, chubbier, more human; sometimes even painted with flaws or distinguishing marks. The Theotokos could have been any woman and no woman but the Madonna seems to be a woman one could meet in the market or street; the model for each one is almost identifiable as a particular woman known to the artist. As the Theotokos is a universal ideal, the Madonna is a particular; this woman, this baby.
In contrast to the uniform background of brilliance in the Orthodox depictions, the background of the Madonna & Child is frequently an actual scene from Italy or Germany or France which, although highly symbolic, still could be the scene out anyone's back door. Again, the scene is focused on the particular rather than oriented toward the universal.
The colors of deep black and brilliant gold in the Eastern depictions are often changed to deep blue, red, and white, or even diaphanous material; no longer the colors of the mysterious deeps, but the night or evening sky (with stars even), the dawn, and the sunset. Halos which in the Theotokos image are remarkably pronounced even if blending with the gold background, almost disappear in the Renaissance depictions becoming thin, wispy hints of holiness that ornament the heads of the characters. Again, it would seem that the distinguishing mark of sanctity cannot be seen in the natural world, and similarly is barely seen in these paintings, creating a far less universal and more particular rendition.
Madonna and child might be smiling or playing with each other, looking at a book or bauble, or greeting visitors; actions which could be engaged by anyone on earth and which seem to show that in the daily commonplace activities lies a hidden mystery.
In almost every Renaissance painting there is an underlying geometry which, once noted, determines the composition of the piece. Yet the geometry is not so readily apparent as in the Theotokos. The geometry of the Madonna paintings is not so noticeable, though still present as though it had gone deeper into the incarnate flesh - embedded and not so obvious. Again, this is similar to the everyday experience of the individual who does not immediately see geometry ruling the physical world. The paintings, though governed by geometry, do not immediately display the universal language of geometry but rather the particular language of the world of things around us.
In the Madonna paintings, the baby is a fat little baby - not the "little man" (homunculus) that rules imperially from the lap of the Regina. One can see the little fellow, a putto in Italian, making the sign of peace to the viewer, looking directly out of the painting, or doing an activity beyond his age level (such as reading a book), but his interaction is normally with the Virgin herself - leaning against her, suckling from her breast, chin-chucking her or playing with her hair. He acts not as a regent but as a normal, playful, baby might act with his mother.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, the Child frequently is naked, lightly clothed, or nude - his little man parts hanging out for all to see. As Leo Steinberg so accurately notes in "The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion" this detail is of remarkable significance as it shows not only the "maleness" of the incarnate being but his ability to sire children and eventual desire to "impregnate" all the world with his image (metaphorically speaking). Such a thing is inconceivable in the Theotokos image which so vividly proclaims the "otherness" of the little man - or perhaps more accurately, is attempting to show both the otherness of his divinity and the intimacy of his humanity.
Therein, perhaps, lies the real distinction between the two forms. The Theotokos attempts to show the hypostatic union, but in so doing sacrifices the familiarity of the commonplace, physical world in lieu of an unfamiliar eternal divinity. The Madonna & Child, attempting to depict the immediacy of the incarnation almost loses the perfection of the eternal divinity. Both forms of artwork are attempting to depict a paradox, namely, how can Christ be both god and man? If he is man does he not lose the god part in the gritty, flawed, particulars of daily existence? If he is god, is there any room for knowing mortal suffering in the midst of his divine, beautiful and terrifying eternity?