The tradition of the Orthodox Church holds that St. Luke the Evangelist was the first iconographer. Shortly after Pentecost, he painted 3 icons of the Mother of God, painted directly from life. As Christians were being actively persecuted, these particular treasures were kept hidden and secret, perhaps only mentioned in a handed-down oral tradition to trusted members of the early church at this point.
A Byzantine historian named Theodore, in the first half of the 6th century, refers in writing to such an icon having been sent a hundred years earlier to Constantinople by the Empress to her sister. This is the oldest historical evidence of the existence of these icons.
In the early 700s, both St. Andrew of Crete and St. Germanus of Constantinople speak of an icon attributed to St. Luke, which was sent to Rome to Theophilus (the same person mentioned in the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles). Once Christianity became an official, legal religion, it became safe to move the sacred images from hiding places in private homes into public churches where all could see them.
Some background history: None of these images, nor any others, (with the exception of a very few in the distant monastery of St. Catherine of the Sinai) survived the early church’s period of iconoclasm in the 700s, which divided Christians into bitterly opposing groups. One faction honored and venerated images, and the other wanted them destroyed as idolatry. The second group, the iconoclasts, gained power initially, and systematically destroyed nearly every existing icon. Feelings ran high. People were actually killed just for owning or painting images, and even for simply expressing their opinions on this matter. Eventually the tide turned, and the icon became the official liturgical art. Images were not again removed from churches until the Protestant Reformation.
So, any original icons actually made through the hand of St. Luke himself would have been destroyed during this 8th century Iconoclast Period. What did survive was the tradition, both in oral instruction and within written prayers and liturgical texts, describing the prototypes which the Evangelist established. As the Church recovered from the controversy and rapidly expanded, icons were once again needed. Iconographers made sacred liturgical images according to carefully handed down instructions and later reproductions of St. Luke’s originals, approved by bishops. Thus were icons kept consistent and doctrinally correct, as handed down through the Church. They spread throughout the Christian world.
These are examples of the types of three images of the Theotokos (Mother of God) said to be made by the hand of St. Luke (in no particular order) . One type is called Elousa/Our Lady of Tenderness. The most famous example of this prototype is the miracle-working icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, beloved in Russia.
The second type is called Hodegritria/She Who Shows the Way. An example of this type is Our Lady of Czestochowa, the most beloved icon of Poland. An earlier example is the Smolensk Mother of God.
The third prototype attributed to St. Luke is one of Our Lady standing alone, without her Child, hands upraised in prayer, the Virgin Orant.
All of these types of icons are called “St. Luke Icons” not because he painted them personally but because he established the prototype. Each one is a new translation of the work of St. Luke the Evangelist. Handed down by the apostles and evangelists through the centuries, they are greatly venerated and loved by the faithful all over the world.