Swords made by Thomas Kapustran

Thomas Kapustran: Sword with sheath, 1674
It looks like a saber of mainland Indochinese style (Burmese, Siamese, or Khmer) and its owner must have had a fascinating reason to have a sword wrought like that. I think this sword has never been wielded in the Ottoman Wars, though. The sword reveals itself as a subject of many different stories, based on cross-cultural migration and artisanal knowledge of craftsmanship and style. It also reflects issues of diplomatic gift-giving, princely collecting habits, and imagined narratives of triumph. Following the (re-)isolation of Japan (sakoku) in the 1630s, considerably fewer Japanese goods had been coming to Europe. It can therefore be assumed that the sword, which was signed in 1674, arrived in Transylvania via several intermediate stations.

The blade is allegedly a Japanese katana that was used as a basis. It may have come to the court of Prince Apafi of Transylvania as a gift from the Ottoman Empire. It is thought that the sword had been given by the Russians to the Turks. Both nations considered this kind of sword useless, though. In the case of the reworking of the “Japanese” sword, functional aspects were probably secondary. The opulent amethyst trimmings on the hilt render the use of the weapon unlikely. 

The scabbard is made of wood, it is covered by sharp or thornback leather, there is a wrought-iron handle on it, and its hilt is decorated with amethyst and gold with enamel. Sheath: wood encased with ray or sharkskin. The scabbard was made after an original Oriental scabbard. However, the technology and the decoration are European and follow typical Transylvanian traditions. The full length is 91.5 cm, the blade is 77.1 cm, its weight is 1,775 gr. There is an oval gold plate on the hand shield with the following text: THO: KAPUSINO: TRANSILVAN FeCit. 1674

The Reformation was introduced to Transylvania in 1542, and the tribute payments to the Ottoman sultan were important factors in the evolution of the local goldsmiths’ art. Hence the demand for liturgical equipment decreased because of the new confessional order; at the same time, Ottomanised design preferences were increasingly considered in the creation of tribute gifts for the sultan. Besides secular silverware, ornamental weapons were established as important products of Transylvanian goldsmiths. These were valued as diplomatic gifts and princely collectibles both at the court in Istanbul and at the courts of German rulers. The demand for Transylvanian artifacts increased accordingly, as did the confidence of the goldsmiths. This is expressed in the goldsmith signature of Thomas Kapustran (active in Kolozsvár/Cluj-Napoca/Klausenburg in the 1670s) on the “Japanese” sword.

The precious decorations suggest that Kapustran’s “Japanese” sword was designed for this market or even commissioned as a court gift. Unfortunately, there are no known documents concerning commissioners or purchasers. But merely ten years after being newly fitted, the sword resided in the armory of the Electoral Saxon court in Dresden. 1684 it is listed in the inventory of the so-called “Indianische Cammer” (Indian Chamber), which, together with the “Türckischen Cammer” (Turkish Chamber), served as a storage room for weapons and armor from the Near and Far East. The pieces exhibited in the armories and the collections of arms mainly had a representative function to help visualize the power, military force, and sphere of influence of the Electoral Prince. Also, these swords were frequently used during festivals.

The second sword is a saber, it is also in the Museum of Dresden:

Weapons of Ottoman origin were staged as symbols of victory in the struggle against the Ottoman Empire and were intended to visualize the princely merits. Mostly they were (and still are) staged as if they had come as booty directly from the battlefield into the collections of the ruling houses, oblivious to the fact that many such pieces circulated as gifts between princes and were often bought in the Ottoman Empire by diplomats.

According to the description of the museum, there are large numbers of Transylvanian goldsmith works in the Dresden armory, and this weapon is one of the few pieces that can be attributed to a master who is known by name. Thomas Kapustran was a goldsmith working in the city of Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca, Klausenburg, temporarily the capital of Transylvania) in Romania. The saber is decorated with colored oriental tendrils on a golden background or with golden orientalizing tendrils on a black background. Among the flowers are tulips, carnations, and pomegranates. On the front of the scabbard, Kapustran also designed a small-figured hunting party with various dogs, wild boar, deer, and parrots.

The blade is iron, forged; the Gold handle is colorfully enameled, set with cut rock crystals. The total length of the saber is 91 cm, the blade is 79.2 cm, and its weight is 839 grams. It was made in 1671. Both weapons are nice examples of Transylvanian craftsmanship and art, I think there must have been many more weapons like them that never survived the destruction of Dresden in WWII.

Many thanks to Radu Fradu for the pictures and Szűcs Tamás for the historical information. Further source: Nicolai Kölmel: A Transylvanian Samurai Sword, Saxon Turks, and other Entanglements. In: Tina Asmussen, Eva Brugger, Maike Christadler, Anja Rathmann-Lutz, Anna Reimann, Carla Roth, Sarah-Maria Schober, Ina Serif (eds.): Materialized Histories. Eine Festschrift 2.0, 01/12/2021, 


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