Ishmael spends a fair amount of time contemplating the mourners in the Whaleman’s Chapel, their gazes fixed to the marble tablets inscribed with the names of whalemen lost to the chase. He rhapsodizes at length about why the living suffer the dead, especially the faithful, believing the departed in some otherworldly Paradise, “dwelling in unspeakable bliss,” “but the rumor of a knockinging in a tomb will terrify a whole city”? In the midst of this reflection – which could have inspired many dark and ponderous illustrations from MK, if he’d chosen another line* – Ishmael observes Queequeg sitting near him in the chapel, “a wondering gaze of incredulous curiosity in his countenance.” Queequeg’s awed expression seems addressed to environs of the chapel itself rather than its congregation, because he recognizes Ishmael among them: “This savage was the only person present who seemed to notice my entrance…” Noting Queequeg’s presence in the chapel – notably, the only person recognizing Ishmael – Ishmael’s language immediately registers Queequeg as out of place there – he’s “savage” here, not pagan – and he further isolates Queequeg on the basis of his supposed linguistic prowess by offering that it’s only because only Queequeg among those in the chapel cannot read (he assumes) and is therefore not reading the “frigid inscriptions” on the wall that he recognizes Ishmael. Ishmael recognizes Queequeg recognizes Ishmael while they both fail (according to Ishmael) to recognize the writing on the wall.
MK’s choice to illustrate this single instance of Queequeg being mentioned as a presence in “The Chapel” – or in the subsequent two chapters where “The Pulpit” is described at length and “The Sermon” of Father Mapple is recorded (After, it’ll be mentioned that he left sometime before the benediction.) – underscores the questionable necessity of Queequeg being inserted into this chapter at all, like a fish out of water. The “curiosity” of Queequeg’s gaze (as it’s given a noun by Ishmael) is consistent with an ethnographic posture toward Christendom that Ishmael will later impute to him.** MK’s interplay of illustration and found page highlights the wonder and incredulity of Queequeg’s countenance upon occupying the space of the chapel.
On the upper half of the found page there is a black-and-white reproduction of what looks like a medieval-era engraving showing scenes in five panels. The interior space is defined in the engraving by a series of vaulted arches, most of them angled sharply toward their zenith, except for what appears to be the center arch (despite the cropping of the photo on the found page), which is more rounded and ornate and is raised just a little bit higher than the rest. Beneath this arched sits a tall, slouched figure in a tri-tipped crown, long robe and cape, sitting atop a sculpted and draped dais between parted curtains tied to the tall columns framing him. To his right and left smaller, dark clad figures are kneeled in positions of supplication and servitude: the one shown to the right looks up into the face of the master of the house with a long scroll in his hand; to the master’s left a stooped, robed youth with an abbot’s cut holds a page of notes. In the far right panel of the engraving four tall robed figures consult around a page, one of them declaiming to the rest. This image is left almost entirely unobscured by MK’s illustration.
Below it, superimposed over the column of text printed on the found page, Queequeg’s face is drawn in its characteristic texture of concentrically lined scallop-shaped scales of aquamarine, his white almond-shaped eye sockets housing his hazy red, pointiliated eyes, which are turned up, as if gazing into the paneled scenes printed above from below. The red eyes are oriented not toward the master, however, but toward the margin. Most obvious when first regarding this canvas is the fact that Queequeg’s face is not rendered anatomically rounded or spherical, but rectangular and flat, like a blanket or a sheet. Or more likely a kite, since around the perimeter of this wavy edged rectangular shape, eleven silhouetted bird shapes lift off with eleven individual aquamarine strings that wind their ways in to the concentrically scalloped scales of Queequeg’s face.
The illustration isolates Queequeg in a “fish out of water” moment in “The Chapel,” but not in the stigmatizing fashion of Ishmael, who immediately resorts to cultural bias to account for Queequeg’s recognition of him in that space. While Queequeg has placed himself in the chapel by his own volition, MK’s illustration shows him captivated by the space, surrendered to its airy atmosphere: not in the passive way of a wet sheet on the line but in a willful, harmonious way, and in a way perhaps that carries him beyond it. Symbiotically, Queequeg’s bird friends fan him out to flap in the open sky of which so many vaulted ceilings are dim reminders. If they kept flying on their separate ways then the damp winding sheet of Queequeg’s tenure in the chapel would unravel him like a shawl. Good thing he leaves before the benediction.
The red Q stamp and infinity band signature appears in the upper left corner of the canvas, superimposed over a portion of the engraving preserved on the found page where the exterior facade of the structure frames the reveal of its interior scenes.
* e.g., “Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope
** “[I]n Queequeg’s ambitious soul, lurked a strong desire to see something more of Christendom than a specimen whaler or two.”