In some Serbian frescos we find an unusual element in depictions of the Magi. Instead of showing only the three Magi on their horses, following the star, there is an additional figure on a horse with them. It is an angel, pointing out the star and guiding the Magi to Bethlehem. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the Star of Bethlehem is considered supernatural rather than astronomical, so the angel of the star is depicted here as part of the “Annunciation to the Magi.”
Here is a 14th century example from the Dechani Monastery in Serbia:
We see this “extra rider” in the scene at left:
And here is a closer look at the angel, identified by inscription simply as an “Angel of the Lord”:
We see the angel again in the scene on the right, with the Magi presenting their gifts to the child Jesus:
Together, the two images represent Kontakion 5 (for the “Annunciation to the Magi” — the scene with the riding angel) and Oikos/Ikos 5 (for the “Adoration/Veneration of the Magi” — the presentation of their gifts) from the “Akathist to the Most Holy Mother of God”:
Боготечную звезду узревше волсви, тоя последоваша зари, и яко светильник держаще ю, тою испытаху крепкаго Царя, и достигше Непостижимаго, возрадовашася, Ему вопиюще: Аллилуиа.
Having seen the God-moved star, the Magi followed its radiance; and holding it as a lamp, by it they sought a powerful King; and having reached the Unreachable One, they rejoiced, shouting to Him: Alleluia!
Видеша отроцы халдейстии на руку Девичу Создавшаго руками человеки, и Владыку разумевающе Его, аще и рабий прият зрак, потщашася дарми послужити Ему, и возопити Благословенней: Радуйся, Звезды незаходимыя Мати; радуйся, заре таинственнаго дне. Радуйся, прелести пещь угасившая; радуйся, Троицы таинники просвещающая. Радуйся, мучителя безчеловечнаго изметающая от начальства; радуйся, Господа Человеколюбца показавшая Христа. Радуйся, варварскаго избавляющая служения; радуйся, тимения изымающая дел. Радуйся, огня поклонение угасившая; радуйся, пламене страстей изменяющая. Радуйся, верных наставнице целомудрия; радуйся, всех родов веселие. Радуйся, Невесто Неневестная.
The sons of the Chaldees saw in the hands of the Virgin Him Who with His hand made man. And knowing Him to be the Master, even though He had taken the form of a servant, they hastened to serve Him with gifts, and to cry to Her Who is blessed: Rejoice, Mother of the Unsetting Star: Rejoice, dawn of the mystic day! Rejoice, you Who did extinguish the furnace of error: Rejoice, you Who did enlighten the initiates of the Trinity! Rejoice, you Who did banish from power the inhuman tyrant: Rejoice, you Who did show us Christ the Lord, the Lover of mankind! Rejoice, you Who redeems from pagan worship: Rejoice, you Who does drag us from the works of mire! Rejoice, you Who did quench the worship of fire: Rejoice, you Who rescues from the flame of the passions! Rejoice, guide of the faithful to chastity: Rejoice, gladness of all generations! Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded!
We find the “extra rider” angel on horseback with the Magi also in this rather busy 1548 work by Frangos Katelanos “of Thebes” — considered the leading painter of the “Epirus School” — in the Varlaam Monastery in Meteora, Greece. The Epirus School was partly influenced by earlier Serbian iconography.
Though in some icons an angel may be seen in the sky above the Magi at the appearance of the star, this depiction of the horse-riding “angel of the star” never really caught on in E. Orthodox iconography of the Magi in general, which is why it is absent from most icons and frescos, but students of icons should be able to recognize it when it is encountered.
It is more common — though again not a rule — to see an angel at the “Adoration” of the Magi, pointing them to Mary and the child Jesus, as in this image from the Menologion of Basil II:
Καὶ ἐλθόντες εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν εἶδον τὸ παιδίον μετὰ Μαρίας τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ, καὶ πεσόντες προσεκύνησαν αὐτῷ ….
Kai elthontes eis ten oikian eidon to paidion meta Marias tes metros autou, kai pesontes prosekunesn auto ….
“And coming into the house, they saw the boy with Mary his mother, and falling down, they worshipped [prosekunesan] him ….”