Despite his somewhat grotesque appearance, Bes was a benevolent god, associated with the protection of households, children, pregnant women and childbirth. The deity is often represented as a human dwarf/lion hybrid and is depicted frontally with a mask-like head. Although numerous examples appear in the Middle Kingdom, it is not until the New Kingdom and onwards that his popularity as a protective deity became widespread. After the New Kingdom representations of Bes wearing a lion pelt, as in the present example, begin to appear.
Arguably the earliest documented image of Bes in western literature, this upper portion of a finely crafted cosmetic vessel was fashioned in Egyptian blue, a form of frit. First published in 1698 in the form of a woodcut accompanying a catalog by a descendant of Michelangelo Buonarroti of the collection of Cardinal Carpegna, the image of this vessel predates the next known reference to a Bes image by more than a century, and is one of a small number of Egyptian antiquities with a European provenance stretching back to the 17th century. A squared aperture at the crown of the head passes through the upper body, where the piece was apparently already truncated at the time of its first publication. Originally forming part of a cosmetic container representing a squatting or standing figure of the dwarf god, the vessel was carefully ground down at the break, and the mouth, lower lip and extended tongue of Bes appear to have been chiseled down and smoothed at some point in the past, perhaps to accommodate now-missing restoration. The particular manner of representing the stylized features of Bes’ eyebrows, eyelids, noise, mouth, and curls of his beard are new in the Saite period, and perhaps reflect the influence of animal depictions in Achaemenid art. The leopard skin worn by Bes in this example may begin to be depicted in Dynasty 25, but J. Romano has shown that it very rarely occurs before Dynasty 26 (The Bes-Image in Pharaonic Egypt, PhD. diss. NYU, 1989, p. 740).
A close parallel in faience (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts 93.110) representing the squatting Bes has been called by Romano “one of the five or six finest Bes-images in the world” (see A.K. Capel and G.E. Markoe, eds., Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven. Women in Ancient Egypt, p. 68) Other faience examples include Brooklyn Museum 34.1191, Leiden A.1114, Turin cat. 648, and Louvre E 10929. Very similar Egyptian blue cosmetic containers depicting Bes are in the Miho Museum, Japan, as well as the Cleveland Museum of Art (1995.13). The Cleveland example features applied red- and yellow-colored frit pastes to accentuate details on the exterior, and contained traces of kohl (galena) on the interior. Most likely the vessel would have been closed with a stopper in the form of the feathered headdress typical of Bes. Some examples of Bes vessels of similar style and date feature pierced fists, possibly intended to hold applicators for a cosmetic or medicinal substance the vessel may have once contained. The association of Bes with childbearing and motherhood suggests that these elaborate vessels may have had magical and ritual functions in addition to their immense decorative appeal.